Features | Diplomacy

Can the US and China Cooperate in Africa?

Competition aside, Washington and Beijing have many shared interests on the African continent, from security to economics to public health.

By R. Maxwell Bone & Ferdinando Cinotto for
Can the US and China Cooperate in Africa?
Credit: Pixabay

In U.S. President Joe Biden’s first foreign policy speech, he made clear that his administration views China as its most significant national security challenge. However, in the same speech Biden indicated that despite an increase in geopolitical tensions and competition between the two countries, they would cooperate when it is in the national interest of the United States. In Biden’s words, “[W]e are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.”

One of the major arenas where the geopolitical competition between Washington and Beijing is often discussed, albeit in a manner that lacks nuance and sophistication, is the continent of Africa. The rhetoric describing the relationships that Beijing and Washington have with African states oftentimes posits that the two countries are in a “new scramble for Africa.” The preceding Trump administration centered its so-called Africa policy on great power competition, and the Biden administration’s nominee to be ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, was lambasted by Republican senators during her confirmation hearing for pushing back on the notion that the U.S. and China are in “a new cold war.”

Despite the rhetoric from the Biden administration indicating that it will continue to confront China on the global stage, both Beijing and Washington have indicated that they are willing to work together when it is in their common interest to do so. Are there potential areas where the two countries can cooperate in regard to Africa policy? The prospect of cooperation on matters of common concern in Africa between the two countries is not unprecedented; however, the current geopolitical environment indicates that such cooperation is likely to be immensely more challenging than in the past. That being said, when examining current challenges facing the continent and the interests of Washington and Beijing alike it is clear that there are several areas where cooperation is possible.

Security Cooperation

Despite tensions between the United States and China regarding their respective military bases in Djibouti, Washington and Beijing have a significant history of cooperating to address shared security threats that emerge from the continent. Initial cooperation between the United States and China in this regard was centered on maritime security threats, in particular piracy. This cooperation first occurred at a large scale in 2008, when Beijing deployed naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden to cooperate with U.S. and international forces to combat a rise in piracy. Cooperation on maritime security continues both off the coast of Africa and globally, indicating a potential for future coordination.

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Significantly, this could be the case regarding rising instances of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea. The United States and China alike have expressed concern about the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and have both worked with regional states through bilateral and multilateral forums to combat it. For instance, China and the United States have each engaged in capacity building measures and conducted anti-piracy drills with states along the Gulf of Guinea. Cooperating on such efforts, including through regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC), has the potential to benefit all parties involved.

Cooperation between Beijing and Washington on matters of security in Africa has also occurred extensively at multilateral levels, particularly surrounding United Nations Peacekeeping operations. In addition to cooperation at the level of the United Nations Security Council to establish and fund such initiatives, the United States and China have played key roles in their tactical operations. China is currently the tenth largest supplier of military and law enforcement personnel to U.N. Peacekeeping missions, with its largest deployment being over 1,000 Chinese nationals with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). China also has over 400 nationals supporting the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). While there are discussions about the efficacy of the aforementioned U.N. missions, it is unlikely that they will be terminated anytime in the near future. Therefore, through both cooperating at the level of the UNSC and at the deployment level, peacekeeping operations in Africa have the potential to be a venue for increased security and political cooperation between Beijing and Washington.

It is unquestionable that military competition between the United States and China will continue to increase in the coming years, undoubtedly leading to more tension in the already fraught relationship. However, areas such as maritime security and U.N. Peacekeeping operations have the potential to be an area for security cooperation between Beijing and Washington in Africa. This is particularly the case regarding challenges to the interests of both countries, in particular the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea.

Economic Cooperation

Within the realms of trade and investment, much has been said about the competition between U.S. and Chinese interests in Africa. Indeed, in light of rising Chinese investments on the continent, and of increasing U.S. denunciations of Chinese initiatives, such competition has been characterized as a “new scramble for Africa,” with the African nations caught in the midst of this geopolitical struggle. This simplistic zero-sum mentality does not align with the reality of the complex commercial reality on the continent. In fact, not only is the Sino-U.S.-African relationship less competitive and more complementary than commonly thought, but there are also areas in which the three parties have the potential to collaborate and achieve mutually beneficial goals.

An analysis of Chinese and U.S. economic interests in Africa displays that the two powers generally do not target the same countries, nor the same sectors and activities. Historically, the priority countries for U.S. trade and investment in Africa have been Nigeria, Mauritius, South Africa, and Ghana, while Chinese investment has predominantly targeted South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Angola, and Ethiopia. Furthermore, while U.S. FDI principally focuses on mining activities (representing 60 percent of American FDI stock on the continent) and on health and education capabilities, Chinese FDI has been shown to be more diverse, with construction and manufacturing activities particularly well represented. Even inside of the African oil and gas sector, where China-U.S. competition is usually regarded to be the fiercest, only a few instances of direct competition have been recorded, given the United States’ superior technological, managerial, and extractive capabilities.

This characterization fits the broader development pattern of the Americans focusing on “soft” infrastructure, targeting human and social capital, and of the Chinese focusing on “hard” infrastructure, such as construction and manufacturing. While not coordinated at any governmental level, the complementarity of these twin approaches is undeniable. Indeed, it is not hard to see how African nations could benefit from a more cooperative approach between the two powers, as they could tap into sectorally diverse sources of investment to address the specific developmental constraints that each country faces.

In terms of policy areas fertile for Sino-U.S.-African trilateral cooperation, Africa’s regional integration stands out for its collective consensus and potential resolution through multilateral approaches. In particular, the continental drive toward a more effective and more integrated African Union (AU) has been vocally supported by both the U.S. and Chinese governments at various stages. Significantly, Article 7 of the 2018 FOCAC Beijing Declaration states: “China commends the African integration process, and pledges its continued support for Africa’s efforts in seeking strength through unity, accelerating integration, upholding peace and stability, and achieving even faster economic growth.” Biden similarly voiced “support and mutual respect” for the AU in his recent address to the AU’s 34th Annual Summit. Indeed, all three sides stand to benefit from a regionally-integrated continent in terms of trade, investment and governance.

Trilateral cooperation could also be a promising boost to Africa’s struggle against corruption. Corruption is a major impediment not only to the regular flow of U.S. and Chinese investment, but also to the growth and sustainable development of African economies. All three actors have in the past taken measures to combat the detrimental effects of corruption. While its implementation is far from adequate, the African Union adopted the Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption in 2003, which commits member states to “prevent, detect, punish and eradicate corruption and related offences in the public and private sectors.” The United States Department of Justice has scaled up its efforts in applying the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to U.S. commercial violators, including Cobalt International Energy and Halliburton Co. The Chinese government has extended its wide-ranging domestic anti-corruption initiative to its “foreign tentacles” by specifically banning bribery of foreign officials in a 2011 amendment to the National Criminal Law. While the implementation of such initiatives is far from sufficient, they are compelling testimonies of a trilateral willingness to systematically address the issue of corruption in African countries. Being that acts of corruption require, by definition, the complicity of multiple actors, a multilateral approach is best geared to solve the issue, and coordinated transparency initiatives between Africa, the United States, and China would surely go a long way in aiding such resolution.

Public Health Cooperation

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Cooperation between the United States and China on matters of public health has existed for decades, especially during times of crisis. One of the first major instances of this cooperation was at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the late 20th century. In the first decade of the pandemic, China attempted to blame cases of the virus on contact with Western countries, even associating it with a “loving capitalism disease.” As the virus began to spread in China in the 1990s, as it had in the United States a decade earlier, bilateral cooperation began on managing the pandemic. The climax of such cooperation was in 2003 when the Global AIDS Program of the U.S. Center for Disease Control implemented HIV prevention and mitigation plans in 15 Chinese provinces. This laid the groundwork for further cooperation between the United States and China on other matters of global public health, to include the Ebola epidemic that took the lives of over 11,000 between 2013 and 2016.

In addition to domestic preparations, the United States and China each initiated an international response to assist West African states in managing the Ebola epidemic. The United States responded with over $1 billion worth of assistance, including thousands of U.S. troops and medical staff who operated 17 100-bed treatment centers. China responded in a similar manner, albeit at a much smaller scale. A People’s Liberation Army (PLA) medical squad was dispatched to construct a 100-bed hospital, and hundreds of medical workers were deployed. In total, Chinese assistance was worth $125 million.

While not centrally coordinated, the two countries did see cooperation between their personnel on the ground. This included U.S. personnel working with staff at a Chinese laboratory and U.S. troops unloading supplies from Chinese military planes. This is in addition to the cooperation between the two countries at the multilateral level, including at the United Nations. In the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic, the United States and China agreed to cooperate with the African Union to establish the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). The two countries established frameworks to further cooperate on matters of international public health, including capacity building measures in countries across sub-Saharan Africa.

While the current international political situation is undoubtedly different than during the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic, such an example demonstrates that in times of crisis it is possible for the United States and China to cooperate on matters of public health. Nowadays, a potential area of public health cooperation between the United States and China is the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine across the continent, as it is likely to be amongst the last regions of the world to receive doses. China has so far sent more vaccines overseas that it has allocated for its own population. China’s Sinopharm vaccine is already being injected in African states, including Morocco and Zimbabwe. While the Biden administration in the United States has acknowledged the importance of global access to the vaccine, including by joining the COVAX initiative, it has yet to donate any doses of the two vaccines that have been approved for use in the United States. However, the U.S. firm Pfizer is one of the two companies that the African Union has signed agreements with to provide 270 million vaccine doses prior to the end of 2021.

Given the domestic vaccine production capabilities of the United States and China, cooperation on providing vaccine doses to the continent of over 1.2 billion people is feasible. This is made even more relevant over the concern about the spread of variants of COVID-19 that may be more infectious or even have the potential to diminish vaccine efficacy, such as the 501.V2 variant that was first discovered in South Africa. Ensuring that African states are able to inoculate their citizenries is clearly in the interest of both Beijing and Washington.

Cooperation between the United States and China on matters of public health in Africa has proven to be mutually beneficial over several decades. This cooperation can be continued to address widespread public health challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to emerging challenges. For instance, the successful cooperation between Beijing and Washington to address the Ebola epidemic between 2013 and 2016 can be replicated should the recent emergence of Ebola in Guinea worsen.

R. Maxwell Bone is an MPhil Candidate in African Studies at the University of Cambridge. Follow him on Twitter @maxbone55

Ferdinando Cinotto is an MPhil Candidate in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. Follow him on Twitter @ferdicinotto