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China, Africa and the New Biden Administration

U.S. President-elect Joseph Biden. Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP

There’s palpable excitement in dozens of capitals around the world about the prospects of a new government in Washington, D.C. This is especially true in Africa, where U.S. relations with a number of countries on the continent felt like they were rapidly deteriorating and on their way towards some kind of breaking point.

But now with a new incoming president, the word that stood out in a lot of this weekend’s initial analysis is “reset.” And a big part of that reset of U.S. foreign policy in Africa involves how the incoming administration is going to frame the issue of China’s presence on the continent.

Not surprisingly amid the ongoing pandemic and a worsening economic crisis, expectations are running high that revitalized U.S. international leadership will help to re-balance foreign policy in many African countries that critics contend have tilted too far towards Beijing.

But African policymakers and other stakeholders are going to have to be patient. Whatever the new president does will take time, given the enormity of the challenges that he faces at home governing a bitterly divided country amid the world’s worst COVID-19 outbreak.

So, with that in mind, here are a few ways the Biden administration will likely deal with the Chinese in Africa:

WHAT TO EXPECT:

  • New pragmatic, less ideological leadership on the National Security Council, State Department, Development Finance Corporation, U.S. Exim Bank, and among politically-appointed ambassadors like Lana Marks in South Africa and Kyle McCarter in Kenya. China will probably not be as prominent in Africa-focused foreign policy initiatives.
  • More engagement at critical multilateral institutions like the WHO, WTO, IMF and other organizations that are disproportionately important to African states. This will potentially narrow China’s growing influence in these bodies where Beijing’s been very effective of late in setting agendas.
  • No reduction in U.S. government spending or resources allocated to Africa in 2021 or 2022. Even though Biden is going to be under intense pressure from Mitch McConnell and the Republican caucus to cut spending, there’s still widespread support for Africa-focused public health, military and diplomacy programs among both Democrats and Republicans. Plus, countering Chinese influence in Africa will remain a top priority for legislators on Capitol Hill.

WHAT NOT TO EXPECT:

  • Any softening of the U.S. outlook towards China. Suspicions about Beijing’s motives in Africa will persist, particularly on issues related to debt, Huawei, and the lack of transparency in Chinese dealings with African governments. After all, the “debt trap” narrative was as widespread in Obama’s State Department as it is in Trump’s today.
  • An upgrade in Africa’s standing in Washington’s foreign policy priorities. The new Biden State Department will focus the bulk of its effort in the first 1-2 years on finding a new China strategy, mending ties with allies and rejoining key international agreements/organizations including the Paris climate accord, the WTO and possibly the JCPOA (Iran) and TPP (Asia trade). There won’t be a lot of time for other priorities until these goals are achieved.
  • Any effort to match Chinese state-backed spending in Africa. While the White House and Congress may be eager to protect current spending levels for African programs, they’re also not going to increase them. Given the current budgetary realities facing the United States (a $3.1 trillion deficit in 2020 alone), African lobby groups in Washington, D.C. are just not strong enough to influence the appropriations process in their favor.

The Chinese government appears to be holding its fire, at least for now, until it can get a better sense of who will be appointed to key positions in the new administration. State propaganda is calling it a “brief timeout” which should provide a welcome reprieve for African governments who’ve become increasingly fed up being caught in the middle of yet another great power rivalry.

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