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U.S.-China competition may be a win-win for Africa

20 Nov 2020
By Naunihal Singh, Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny, and E. Gyimah-Boadi

By Naunihal Singh, Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny, and E. Gyimah-Boadi

Naunihal Singh is an assistant professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. The opinions expressed are his own, and not those of his employer. He is the author of “Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny is Afrobarometer regional communications coordinator for anglophone West Africa, based at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana). Find her on Twitter @JAppiahNyamekye.

E. Gyimah-Boadi is interim CEO of Afrobarometer. Find him on Twitter @gyimahboadi.

Originally published on the Monkey Cage blog.

In the U.S.-China competition for influence in Africa, is there a winner?

The U.S. government has countered China’s growing engagement on the continent with warnings about “debt diplomacy” and reminders of America’s “true partnership.” The intensifying U.S-China global competition may leave African leaders with a delicate balance to strike, along with strategic opportunities for African nations to pursue their national interests. But analysts have also argued that the U.S.-China relationship highlights the need for a revitalized U.S. Africa policy marked by “constructive competition” rather than a zero-sum mindset.

If both superpowers are aiming for influence in Africa, new data from Afrobarometer public attitude surveys in 18 African countries in 2019/2020 shed some light on their success. Africans generally have positive feelings about the roles the U.S. and China play on the continent, but Beijing’s influence has weakened in popular perceptions. Significantly, many Africans welcome both Chinese and U.S. engagement with their country.

What do Africans see as the best development model?

In interviews largely completed before COVID-19 began dominating national headlines, Afrobarometer asked respondents which country provides the best model for the future development of their own country. The United States still dominates: 32 percent of Africans identify the U.S. as their preferred model, while 23 percent prefer China (see Figure 1). About one in 10 choose the former colonial power in their country (Britain, France or Portugal), and an equal share select a continental model: South Africa.

Across the 16 countries where Afrobarometer also asked this question in 2014/2015, there was little aggregate change in preference for either China or the United States as a model, although overall the gap has narrowed from 11 to 8 percentage points. At the country level, large gains in preference for China in a few countries (including a 19-percentage-point increase in Burkina Faso) have been offset by declines in others (including drops of 11 percentage points in Namibia and 7 points in Cabo Verde).

Given that China is the relative newcomer in this global competition, it’s interesting that younger Africans are more likely than their elders to favor the U.S. model (36 percent of those aged 18-25 vs. 25 percent of those over age 65), while regard for the Chinese model is fairly steady across all age groups. Both the U.S. and Chinese models score higher among respondents with more education.

Figure 1: Best model for development: China vs. U.S. | 18 countries | 2019/2020


Question: In your opinion, which of the following countries, if any, would be the best model for the future development of our country, or is there some other country in Africa or elsewhere that should be our model?

Africans generally view China warmly, but perceptions of Beijing’s influence have declined. Across 16 countries, the proportion of Africans who say China has “some” or “a lot” of influence in their country has dropped steeply since 2014/2015, falling from 71 percent to 56 percent, while the share who see China’s influence as mostly positive has decreased more modestly, from 65 percent to 60 percent. China’s perceived influence has declined in all of the surveyed countries except Cabo Verde, most steeply in Mali (down 21 points), Malawi (23 points), Botswana (24 points), and Sierra Leone (39 points) (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Influence of China’s economic activities | 18 countries | 2014-2020


Question: How much influence do you think China’s economic activities in [this country] have on our economy, or haven’t you heard enough to say? (percent who say “some” or “a lot”)

On average across 18 countries, almost identical proportions see the influence of China (59 percent) and the United States (58 percent) as “somewhat” or “very” positive (Figure 3). In 10 countries, the difference is 5 percentage points or less; the only double-digit gap is in Mali, where perceptions of positive Chinese influence (80 percent) exceed those of positive U.S. influence (60 percent) by 20 percentage points.

Importantly, it appears that for many Africans, U.S.-China “competition” may not be an either-or proposition, but a win-win. Those who are positive about the influence of China are more likely to feel positively about U.S. influence as well — the two views are strongly and positively correlated, instead of moving in opposite directions (where one increases as the other decreases), which we would expect if Africans perceived this to be purely a competition.

Figure 3: Positive influence: China vs. U.S. | 18 countries | 2019/2020


Question: Do you think that the economic and political influence of each of the following countries on [your country] is mostly positive, mostly negative, or haven’t you heard enough to say? (percent who say “somewhat positive” or “very positive”)

Does Africa have too much debt?

China has made major investments in infrastructure in Africa, many in the form of loans that must be repaid rather than grants or gifts. But across 18 African countries, on average fewer than half (48 percent) of respondents are aware that their country receives loans or development assistance from China, including fewer than three in 10 in Sierra Leone (29 percent), Nigeria (28 percent), and Tunisia (24 percent).

A substantial majority (77 percent) of those who know about the loans and assistance correctly understand that their governments must usually repay China. At the same time, there is some awareness of the generally much lighter burden of conditionality that China puts on its debtors compared to other donor countries: 41 percent say China places fewer requirements than other donors, compared to 24 percent who say it places more.

But even with some understanding that their governments may face easier terms when borrowing from China, 58 percent of those who are aware of these loans believe their government has borrowed too much money from China. Kenyans (87 percent), Namibians (78 percent) and Angolans (75 percent) are particularly concerned about being overly indebted to China. This concern increases with respondents’ education level (62 percent among those with post-secondary education).

This suggests that the U.S. government and other development partners may be meeting with some success in their efforts to remind Africans that even if money from China and other non-traditional development partners comes with fewer strings, they face the risk of a deepening debt trap.

But is Mandarin the language of the future?

China’s pursuit of “soft power,” including a proliferation of Confucius Institutes across Africa, appears to be making little progress. Figure 4 shows how Africans remain far more interested in learning English (71 percent say it is the best international language for their children to learn) than in learning Chinese (2 percent). English is particularly valued by Africans with at least a secondary education (78 percent), though interest in Chinese is also higher among those with higher education (5 percent).

Figure 4: Best international language for children to learn | 18 countries | 2019/2020


Question: In thinking about the future of the next generation in our country, which of these international languages, if any, do you think is most important for young people to learn?

And is there a winner?

U.S. government efforts to portray Chinese investment in Africa as malign and dangerous do not seem to resonate with the average person, however. Here’s an example: One study overlaying Chinese aid projects and Afrobarometer data on public perceptions suggests that these projects contribute to a positive view of Chinese aid among local populations.

One important takeaway for Western policy makers may be that Africans welcome engagement that addresses Africa’s priorities — regardless of whether it originates in China or the United States. In the eyes of many Africans, the winner in the U.S.-China competition for influence in Africa could conceivably be all three.