Any doubts about the bipartisan consensus in Washington around the need to compete with China in Africa were erased in the early months of 2021, when senior Biden administration appointees like U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield took pains to agree with Republican Senators about the threat that China’s activities in Africa pose to U.S. interests, an argument that has since been reiterated by USAID Administrator Samantha Power and Secretary of State Blinken. Clearly, everyone was on the same page; the United States cannot be complacent about China’s decades-long, multifaceted campaign for access and influence on the African continent.
Major powers’ interests in Africa encompass everything from concerns about geostrategic maritime chokepoints to the continent’s greater integration into the global economy, the promise and the peril of Africa’s demographic transformation, and the power of Africa’s voice and vote in global forums. While Africa need not be a theater for conflict, real tensions will persist as external powers compete not just for access to resources, but for African support for preferred governance norms and technology regimes that will shape the international order in the decades to come.
But one can acknowledge that reality, find ways to mitigate U.S.-China tension, and compete more effectively and successfully without adopting major power rivalry as the primary lens through which to understand U.S. engagement in the region. That approach misunderstands African desires, and U.S. policy is unlikely to be very successful without reckoning with partners’ priorities. As diverse as African interests are, some generalizations hold true. African states seek security, prosperity, and influence in the international system commensurate with the reality that by 2050, one-quarter of the world’s population will be African. They want multiple partners and options, not a forced choice in some binary geopolitical tussle.
In addition to blinding Washington to African interests, a tunnel vision focus on U.S.-China rivalry ignores the potential of U.S. relations with African states. In a narrow quest to avoid losing ground to others, the United States misses a chance to think big about the upside of Africa’s growing importance on the international stage, and to envision the possibilities of a future in which vibrant, stable African states are partners in reforming the rules-based international order in the interest of tackling global problems and advancing shared norms. Working to prevent one outcome—total Chinese political and economic dominance in Africa—is absolutely essential. But it cannot be permitted to preclude a more strategic focus on the kind of partnerships we wish to develop, and cannot be allowed to obscure opportunities to make that vision reality.