No doubt Africans across the continent likely reacted with puzzlement to one of the latest revelations from the stream of leaked United States diplomatic cables from the controversial whistle-blower website Wikileaks. After a century of aggressive United States economic, political and military engagement in Africa, particularly during the Cold War, it is laughably ironic Washington is somehow dismayed that China’s foreign policy in the region may not be entirely benevolent.
While history may conclude that the ends did justify the means in the resolution of the Cold War, Africa undeniably paid an extraordinarily high price for its role in American foreign policy during that period. Whether it was Washington’s alliance with brutal dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Ronald Reagan’s embrace of Jonas Savimbi in Angola or its support of the apartheid government in Pretoria as an anti-communist bulwark.
By any measure, the United States was, and remains, deeply invested in Africa for its own, narrow geo-political interests.
So when considered in that context, it is somewhat surprising that the United States appears to be dismayed that China, like other countries, is aggressively pursuing its own economic, political and even military interests in Africa.
In a memo transmitted from the United States Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria on February 23, 2010, Washington’s top diplomat on African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, said: “China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals. China is not in Africa for altruistic reasons, China is in Africa for China primarily.”
The fact that Carson framed the issue in moralistic terms is fascinating because it reveals so much about how the United States still regards its foreign policy as somehow above the fray, almost with a divine sense of self-righteousness. Implicit in his response is that Washington is in Africa not for its own interests but for the benefit of Africa in pursuit of some “altruistic” purpose. Again, this must seem painfully ironic to those familiar with the history of American foreign policy on the continent.
The Assistant Secretary of State goes on to explain that Washington’s tolerance of Beijing’s engagement in Africa does in fact have its limits if China crosses one of the White House’s so-called “tripwires.”
“Have they signed military base agreements? Are they training armies? Have they developed intelligence operations? Once these areas start developing then the US will start worrying,” Carson said.
So the United States seemingly has nothing to worry about until Beijing embarks on a policy to significantly enhance the militarization of its African foreign policy? Right? Well, it appears that Washington’s perspective adheres to that old adage if you think you’re a hammer then the rest of the world just looks like a bunch of nails.
If Carson’s narrow-minded focus on the militarization of Chinese foreign policy is the benchmark of when to “worry” about the competition from the Chinese and his characterization of China’s engagement in Africa in such stark moralistic terms, then the United States truly does not understand the challenge that it is up against and likely stands only a slim chance of mounting an effective policy of its own.
For an American, such as myself, it’s hard to decide whether to laugh… or cry.
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