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!