Ongolo Proud African

China v US is way above Africa's nuclear pay grade

Author: Muloongo Muchelemba
20 December 2021

Political analysts are divided about whether to brand the tense relationship between China and the United States (US), Cold War II. Unlike the first Cold War which pit pro-capitalist countries led by the United States against pro-communist countries led by USSR, Sino-American relations are multifaceted cutting across social, economic, geo-political, and technological issues. As bankers would say, this the ultimate BSD contest.

History of China-US relations

China and the US have had a strained relationship since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949. The US backed the Nationalist party led by Chiang Kai-shek which fled Beijing in defeat and established the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan. The divide widened when China sided with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to support North Korea during the 1950 Korean War. It wasn’t until 1969, when tensions between China and USSR broke their loose alliance, that the US warmed up to establishing relations with China. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly visited China in 1971, paving the way for the first visit by a US President. Richard Nixon spent eight days in China in February 1972 where he met Chairman Mao Zedong who led China from 1949-1976.

Chairman Mao
Chairman Mao Zedong giving a speech on the Tiananmen square in 1949. Portrait from Chinese Banknotes.

In 1979, the two countries formally established diplomatic ties with the US agreeing to respect the One China policy by breaking political ties with the ROC, though they maintained cultural and economic relations. The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 was a turning point in political relationship. The US froze relations with China after thousands of students were killed for demanding democratic reforms. After another decade of strained relations, US President Bill Clinton tried to mend fences on the economic front by establishing trade relations with China and supporting its acceptance into the World Trade Organisation in 2001.

Bilateral trade between the two countries grew to more than US$559 billion in 2019, however it was unbalanced, with the US running a significant and expanding trade deficit with China. The deficit became a key political issue during the 2016 US presidential election because it had tripled from over $100 billion in 2002 to over $400 billion by the time US President Donald Trump launched the trade war in 2018. Trump placed restrictions and bans on imports which resulted in China retaliating with tariffs of their own. The trade war negatively affected global trade for all countries.

The most recent tension stems from on the US ban on Chinese tech (Huawei), threats to ban Chinese social media (TikTok), accusations of technology theft and currency manipulation, support of Hong Kong protestors, the Covid-19 pandemic, the Uyghur genocide, and Taiwan. Given the long history of falling out, one can assume that China and United States will be permanent frenemies.

China-Africa relations

The Imperial City in the heart of Beijing
The Imperial City in the heart of Beijing

China established relations with Africa in the 1950s and contrary to popular belief, provided financing for large scale projects as early as the 1970s. Bilateral trade increased as China’s economy grew and China surpassed the US to become Africa’s largest trade partner in 2009. The belt and road initiative launched in 2015 cemented China’s status as Africa’s leading trade and investment partner with large-scale infrastructure projects in key economic sectors. Africa and China engage formally via the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summits which are attended by all countries except Eswatini, which has maintained formal relations with Taiwan.

US-Africa relations

Washington monument and reflecting pool in the US capital, Washington, DC
Washington monument and reflecting pool in the US capital, Washington, DC

President John F. Kennedy was the first US leader to recognise that Africa would become the next battleground with USSR and held the first leadership summit with Africa leaders from 1961-3, a model China later adopted. Unfortunately, the US has never had a clear and consistent strategy on Africa and the continent remains at the bottom of its Foreign Policy priorities. Relations deteriorated under Trump, who made disparaging remarks about Africa and imposed discriminatory visa bans on some countries. The Biden administration is now rebuilding America’s relationship with Africa. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken toured Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal in Nigeria where he discussed geo-political issues such as Ethiopia and signed billion-dollar agreements with US companies in Senegal. The Democracy Summit held between 9-10 December was attended by more than 15 African governments and intended to reclaim America’s role as the champion for democracy. Bottom line: America is back!

Where does Africa stand on China v US?

Research by Afrobarometer has shown that many Africans have no preference between China and US and those who tend to hold positive views about China also have positive views about the US and vice versa. The challenge for Africa, which enjoys warm relations with both superpowers, is to remain neutral because quite frankly: this is not our fight.

"When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers"

African proverb that means the weak get hurt in conflicts between the powerful



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