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U.S.-China “competition” is a win-win in the eyes of ordinary Africans

As featured in the Wilson Center's "Africa: Year in Review 2021" publication
Joseph Asunka 1 Jan 2022
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Originally published on the Wilson Center site. 

U.S.-China competition for influence in Africa neither started nor ended in 2021, but it may have taken a turn—for the better, in the eyes of ordinary Africans.

In outlining the Biden administration’s vision during a visit to Nigeria in November, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised to “stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics” and to pursue a policy that is “not about China or any other third party. It’s about Africa.”

Findings from Afrobarometer surveys in 34 African countries suggest that such an approach will sit well with many Africans, who see investments and assistance from the United States and Chinese less in terms of a geopolitical struggle and more in terms of practical development priorities.

A majority of Africans welcomes both Chinese and U.S. engagement (63 percent and 60 percent, respectively). Very few see it as negative (14 percent and 13 percent, respectively). In fact, those who feel positively about Chinese influence in their country are also more likely to feel positively about U.S. influence. This sentiment suggests that for many Africans, a U.S.-China “competition” is a win-win rather than an either/or proposition.

However, Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama’s intended lighthearted (and admittedly, almost cynical) image of Africa as the bride accepting the billion-dollar best of two suitors—China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the U.S. Build Back Better World (B3W)—doesn’t quite capture African opinion. In fact, Afrobarometer findings indicate that Africans largely abhor paternalistic development assistance.

A majority (55 percent) say that their own governments should control decisions about how development assistance is used. Even when it comes to tying development assistance to the promotion of democracy, half (51 percent) of Africans demur; they want their own governments to decide these things.

The “competition” for opportunities and influence in Africa may remain contentious as President Biden and Secretary Blinken have made it clear that, unlike BRI, B3W aims to advance democratic governance. But in a context of engagement that addresses real needs while respecting sovereign nations as partners, rather than pawns in a global game, even such disputes could prove fruitful.

Joseph Asunka

Joseph Asunka is the chief executive officer at Afrobarometer.