Why the U.S. Cannot Compete with China in Africa or Anywhere Else

This week, Joe Biden summoned 49 African presidents to D.C. for an international conference.

In doing so, the administration offered assurances (through National Security spokesperson, Jake Sullivan) that in contrast to previous gatherings, it would not scold or lecture Africa’s leaders about not obeying U.S. demands, e.g., in the United Nations. (There, by the way, just recently African leaders had to endure something like a schoolboy’s dressing-down when many abstained from supporting American resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.)  

Rather, Sullivan claimed that this time the purpose of the conference would be to listen respectfully to the leaders in question and to help them work out solutions to the continent’s problems on their own terms. Participants would be treated, Sullivan pledged, with respect and as equals.

The reason for the change in attitude? It’s that the United States finds itself currently locked in mortal competition for global influence with its chief rival, China. And, of course, that includes Africa.

There, the U.S. seeks not just access to the continent’s vast mineral and other resources, but also to Africa’s strategic geographical position and its market of over 1 billion consumers. The United States also wants to prevent spread of Chinese influence into what it and its European partners continue to understand as their inviolable post-colonial domain. For those reasons, it’s important to enter into agreements with nations such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with South Africa, Libya, Egypt, and Kenya.

But if that’s its goal, the United States has a problem that renders it virtually incapable of competition with China in Africa – or anywhere else for that matter.

I’m referring to U.S. ideology and its history.

As the world’s chief proponent of economic neoliberalism, the ideology of the United States makes it all but constitutionally unwilling to accommodate anything that smacks of socialism.

Relatedly, the U.S. track record shows that wherever there’s a whiff of leftist state ownership, market control, or increased taxes on the elite, Americans will predictably apply sanctions, engage in regime change, or even assassinate, or invade. Think of Egypt’s coup that stopped the Arab spring in its tracks. Think of Ghaddafi’s ignominious fate and of Mrs. Clinton’s epitaph on his behalf, “We came, we saw, he died. Ha, ha!”

All of Africa – all the Global South – remembers such disgraceful interference with their national aspirations.

On the other hand, the People’s Republic of China is hampered by no such limitations. After all, it is run by a party that calls itself “communist.” That party describes its own economy as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Its mixed economy has a huge section owned and controlled by the government. Its private sector is tightly regulated. China therefore has no quarrel with public ownership, market regulation, or with taxing the rich. It loves socialism.

Additionally, China’s track record has it freely cooperating with neo-liberal regimes, with despot kingdoms, and with other states aspiring to socialism. Compared with similar arrangements with the United States, China’s loan contracts, Belt-and-Road projects, and other agreements generally come with far fewer if any strings attached.   

So, if an African country wants to follow China’s suit of socialism, its leaders will not have to fear sanctions or regime change, much less assassination or invasion from its international economic partner.

To repeat: that’s not the case in dealing with the United States. And that’s why the latter will never triumph in its Global South competition with China!   

Cape Town Notes

I’m here in Cape Town, South Africa, and have been for the last three and a half months, accompanying my wife, Peggy, who’s completing her sabbatical in this one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We’re living in Llandudno, just outside of Cape Town in a flat we’re renting from friends we met sixteen years ago during a sabbatical year in Zimbabwe. We’re a five-minute walk from the beach which is just spectacular.

View from our deck

For the past month, we’ve been traveling this “cradle of human civilization” along the gorgeous “Garden Route” and beautiful “Wine Route” that attract so many visitors each year. With our daughter Maggie, her husband (Kerry), their two delightful children [Eva (3) and Oscar (1)], and the family’s au pair (Carla) we’ve explored Cape Town, its museums, gardens, and encircling mountains. We’ve also been on safari encountering in the process lions, elephants, wart hogs, hartebeests, impalas, ostriches, black rhinos, giraffes, water buffalo, and zebra.

Setting out to search for lions.

Our son, Brendan, also visited us for a week with his girlfriend, Erin.

Erin and Brendan

Brendan and I played a couple of South Africa’s picturesque golf courses surrounded as they are by endless vineyards and looming mountains.

Brendan teeing off. Mike watching and wishing he could hit the ball like that.

Some of the rock formations here in the southern Cape are remarkable. As Dean Perini points out in his Pathways of the Sun, many of them have been “enhanced” by the Koi-Koi and San people indigenous to this area. The enhancements (for instance, sharpening features in rocks which resemble human faces) serve the same purpose as the completely human fabrications in places like Tikal, Stone Henge, and (perhaps) Easter Island.  They position the movement of the sun, moon, stars, and planets to keep track of equinoxes and solstices. All of those heavenly bodies and seasons influence our bodies (70% water) as surely as they do the ocean tides and the seasons. So it was important to the Koi-Koi and San to mark the precise moments of the annual celestial events for purposes of celebrations, rituals, and feasts.

We’re privileged here in Llandudno to bask in the presence of the great “Mother Rock,” which like so many other mountains, rocks, sacred wells and springs in this area exudes extraordinary cleansing energy. Peggy and I often make our evening meditation before this Rock, and on occasion in a nearby sacred cave.

Sacred Cave

Mother Rock

Yes, the human story began here 300,000 to 500,000 years ago. In the presence of ocean, sacred caves, and holy rocks, we’re attempting to reconnect with the roots of it all and with the animals and ancient peoples who in their harmony with nature’s processes seem much wiser than we post-moderns are proving to be. What a privilege it is to be in Africa.