Op-ed: Grooming Autocrats
China is exporting more than infrastructure to Africa
U.S.-China great-power competition in Africa is well under way. In recent years, China has significantly advanced its strategic economic, political, and military interests across the continent. Beijing has used its wide-ranging Belt and Road Initiative and other means of economic engagement to expand influence and market access globally, including in sub-Saharan Africa. This is not news. Less reported is that China is increasing its influence over governments and elites across Africa, impairing budding democratic practices along the way.
Chinese government-linked entities are exploiting and exacerbating “governance gaps” in vulnerable countries, using corruption and a lack of transparency to conclude deals that undermine political accountability and ensure China’s long-term influence. Beijing is also coopting journalists and using targeted propaganda and investments in the media sector to shape the information environment to its advantage in places across Africa.
America’s increasing focus on rivalry with China ensures that U.S. Africa policy will continue to be viewed, at least in part, through a China lens. It is critical, however, that the new Biden Administration avoid approaches that have led to failures in the past, including adopting an overly “securitized” approach to the continent and making generalizations about “debt-trap diplomacy” while overlooking Beijing’s efforts to undermine governance and coopt African elites.
Approaching the continent through the lens of great-power competition while ignoring Beijing’s efforts to influence the politics of individual African countries will ultimately diminish U.S. influence on the continent relative to China’s. It also undermines the importance of focusing once again on the development needs of individual African democracies. Competing with China in Africa while reinforcing democracy there are mutually reinforcing goals.
Across the continent, from South Africa to Sudan, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is expanding training for political parties, deepening its influence with ruling regimes, and using a whitewashed narrative about Beijing’s domestic response to covid-19 to support claims about the superiority of authoritarian governance to democracy. In Kenya, the CCP has held events with the ruling Jubilee party in all of the country’s forty-seven counties, secured high-level endorsements of China’s approach to governance, and sought to teach purported lessons for Kenya’s development. Beijing’s popularization, both direct and inadvertent, of a system of government antithetical to democracy is central to the struggle between the United States and China.
In countries like Uganda and Zambia, the CCP shares with aspiring and current autocrats the technology, normative and legislative frameworks, and training to monitor their citizens, muzzle independent media and civil society, and impose repressive internet rules. Beijing offers illiberal leaders not only products for controlling their societies but a vision of how to build a prosperous and stable state without having to share power with citizens or rely on Western assistance that requires democratic progress.
While broad regional U.S. strategies in Africa may address transnational threats and tackle some kinds of competition with China, they will be insufficient, because China also advances its interests by coopting governments of individual countries. Beijing’s approach to specific African countries varies based on its differing strategic interests and the nature of political and economic conditions in each place. For example, past U.S. administrations have spoken in generalized terms to assert that China has used a “debt trap” approach across Africa. In fact, African countries’ experiences with Chinese investment terms have been far from uniform. It is no surprise, therefore, that such sweeping rhetoric has fallen on deaf ears, merely heightening suspicion about U.S. intent.
Washington would do better to adopt country-specific strategies that address China’s manifest efforts to erode democracy in many African countries. Doing so would respond to the overwhelming desire among African publics for democracy and good government.
Efforts tailored to individual countries’ circumstances are also needed to successfully bolster resilience in the face of Beijing’s varying tactics with different ruling governments and elites. Cooperation among U.S. government representatives across regions in Africa may spread information about “best practices,” but it is also necessary to use country-specific intelligence and apply tailored interventions to expose China’s intentions and efforts to coopt particular ruling regimes. CCP efforts at cooptation work best in countries where transparency is limited and the rule of law is weak.To thwart such efforts, therefore, Washington must be aware of individual countries’ particular “governance gaps” and work with in-country partners to address them.
To compete with China and advance U.S. interests in Africa, the United States also needs to focus attention and resources on areas beyond military strategy and cooperation to counter transnational threats like pandemics and terrorist activity. Greater diplomatic outreach to African countries is essential: Beijing far outpaces Washington in terms of visits and general attention to the continent. U.S. provision of covid vaccines and other medical assistance is critical in the near term to demonstrating Washington’s commitment to African countries at a time when China is smartly using “vaccine diplomacy” to expand its soft power. Expanded U.S. and allied investment and trade can offer African countries alternatives to China, particularly as Beijing is pulling back on its lending across the continent. Washington should also support training for African officials negotiating future deals with China.
Washington needs strategies that diagnose and prevent China’s efforts to expand its interests at the cost of countries’ democracy, prosperity, and independence; and the best such strategy lies in citizen-centered government and accountable institutions. The United States must call out anti-democratic regimes for human rights and other abuses, even when such protest is inconvenient. Doing otherwise—continuing to treat military and counterterrorism aims on the continent as more important than other goals—encourages the idea that Washington has been just as willing as Beijing to support autocrats when it suits U.S. interests.
Finally, despite the competition under way in Africa, the United States and other democracies should not make that competition the basis of their internal decision-making about strategies toward the continent. Such thinking will only make it easier for America’s adversaries to portray the United States as using African countries as chess pieces in a new Cold War and to characterize its support for good governance and human rights as a cynical ploy. In approaching African countries, Washington’s framework should be that of helping civil societies achieve development goals on their own terms, whether or not they are congruent with the priorities of ruling elites, while bolstering democracy and institutional autonomy. In this way, the United States can play the long game, betting that support for healthy democracies will yield fruitful relationships in decades to come, while China doubles down on clientelist relationships with elites and the promotion of its authoritarian vision.
To compete with China in Africa, the United States, somewhat counterintuitively, should focus less on Beijing and more on its relationships with African countries themselves. Such a strategy should prioritize diplomatic outreach to African nations, cultivate military relationships, and expand economic engagement and investment. To be successful in the long term, however, the Biden team would also do well to focus on strengthening democracy in Africa. Such an approach would not only counter China’s efforts to gain influence with elites and ruling regimes, but emphasize America’s commitment to Africa’s development and democratic future.
David Shullman is a senior advisor at the International Republican Institute and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He served as deputy national intelligence officer for East Asia on the National Intelligence Council from 2016 to 2018.
Patrick Quirk is senior director for strategy, research, and the Center for Global Impact at International Republican Institute and a non-resident fellow in the foreign policy program of the Brookings Institution. He served as a member of the U.S. secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff from 2018 to 2019.