A Washington-based expert on China-Africa relations is disputing the basis of President Donald Trump’s new Africa policy, which depicts US practices as a benign alternative to China’s “predatory” behaviour on the continent.
Successive US policymakers “have been spreading myths and rumours about what the Chinese are doing” in Africa, says Dr Deborah Brautigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
But a December 13 speech by National Security Advisor John Bolton went further by placing Cold War-style competition between Washington and Beijing at the centre of US strategy in Africa.
In his address, Mr Bolton suggested that African states are being misled by China’s offers of hefty loans for infrastructure projects.
By luring African governments into debt traps, the Chinese regime is actually aiming to foster dependency relationships as part of its quest to achieve “global dominance,” Mr Bolton warned.
US insistence that it caters for Africa’s best interests strikes many sub-Saharan governments as “paternalistic, patronising and unnecessary,” Dr Brautigam said.
Studies by the research initiative she has headed for the past four years finds “no evidence at all,” Dr Brautigam said, for the Trump administration’s depiction of China as a stealthy villain intent on sucking Africa’s blood.
Contrary to US claims, she argues, China does not typically make loans at high interest rates to African countries that it knows have little chance of making good on their debt.
Research findings indicate that China actually varies its lending rates in accordance with its assessments of African countries’ repayment resources, Dr Brautigam added.
US officials emphasise the socially positive nature of US spending in Africa, in contrast to what is presented as China’s indifference to corruption, environmental and human rights standards.
Congo/Brazzaville, Djibouti and Zambia, in particular, have worrisome debt levels to Beijing, a study by the China Africa Research Initiative has found.
But it is “inaccurate” to accuse China of ignoring the underlying impact of its investments in Africa while contending that the US does consistently factor human rights ramifications into its financing decisions, Dr Brautigam says.
She cites Angola, which has been the recipient of massive amounts of Western aid and investment despite its government’s egregious record of repression and corruption.
The US is more alert to human rights factors than is China, Dr Brautigam adds, “but we still support many governments with significant problems” in that regard.
And now the US appears to be laying down rules for a zero-sum game, in which African countries are given the choice of siding with either Washington or Beijing, she says.
“It is a Cold War mentality,” Dr Brautigam comments.
She cautions that the Trump administration lacks the means to carry out the “Prosper Africa” approach sketched by Mr Bolton.
The White House may wish to make a close African ally such as Kenya an example of the rewards to be gained by working closely with the US, but it is not able to shower its friendly countries with largesse, Dr Brautigam observes.
Although Congress recently approved a doubling of funding — to $60 billion — for a restructured US development-financing agency, lawmakers show little appetite for massive increases in US assistance to African nations.
President Trump himself has in fact called for deep cuts in US aid to Africa in budget proposals that were subsequently rejected by Congress.