Last year, the world’s fifth least-developed country, Burundi, inaugurated a $22 million presidential palace. In Zimbabwe, whose economy the World Bank believes contracted by nearly 8 percent last year, a six-story, $100 million parliament building is nearing completion. The Liberian government, which oversees the world’s ninth least-developed country, is adding two new annexes to its capitol building and a new ministerial complex. The $66 million combined cost of the project equals more than 2 percent of Liberia’s estimated 2019 GDP.
All of the buildings—and many more across the continent—were gifts from the Chinese government.
Posh government buildings gleaming in the midst of the world’s poorest countries are part of what I call China’s “palace diplomacy,” the decades-long cultivation of senior African leaders that has been hugely successful. Palace diplomacy helps explain the reason behind an increasingly obvious phenomenon: Many African rulers will likely side with Beijing over Washington on key strategic issues and in international fora like the United Nations. This unpleasant reality should spark a rethink of the U.S. approach towards Africa if it wishes to better compete with an aggressive Chinese government that sees African countries as critical sources of support.
China’s Investments in African Leaders
A central element of palace diplomacy is lavishing African rulers with personal benefits, such as grand new workplaces that serve little purpose other than to curry favor with recipient governments. In a recently published report—which so irked the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that its spokesman attacked it during a press conference—I explain how I found that since 1966, Chinese companies have built or renovated at least 186 African government buildings, including 24 offices or residences of heads of state. Of the 70 buildings for which I found financing information, the Chinese government or a Chinese company financed all but three, and Beijing partially or fully subsidized the construction costs for at least 45 of the 70 buildings.
African rulers do business with Beijing not only out of self-interest, of course. The continent needs wise infrastructure development, and China is sometimes the only willing lender. Certain cheap Chinese products, particularly technology such as smart phones, are hugely popular with African consumers, and Chinese firms have built most of the continent’s 3G and 4G telecoms networks. There is also a sense of developing world solidarity and the attendant mistrust of the developed world that accounts for some of the warmth in the official China-Africa relationship.
Yet the perks an African leader can enjoy from a warm relationship with Beijing are powerful incentives to cooperate. The Chinese government has allegedly made direct cash payments to heads of state or ruling parties in Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Somalia, and Zambia. Chinese companies have reportedly bribed presidents, senior government officials, or their family members in Benin, Chad, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. Even those companies involved in graft that are not state-owned are often so enmeshed with the Chinese government that their activities are consonant with Beijing’s foreign policy goals.
Not all the inducements are so direct. Others take the form of expensive gifts: exotic tiling for a dictator’s mansion, a helicopter for a coup leader, a lavish wedding for a prime minister, or new headquarters for ruling parties in Namibia, Zambia, and Sierra Leone (though the Chinese government and the party in question deny the latter).
One of the most captivating gifts Beijing offers African officials is help maintaining power. For two decades, Chinese state-owned companies have dominated the provision of physical infrastructure in Africa, projects that are tangible reminders to the voting public of what a leader is accomplishing (in 2007, Republic of the Congo President Sassou-Nguesso marked the inauguration of a Chinese-built road with an unsubtle banner proclaiming “A Dream Come True Thanks to Sassou”). Chinese companies are particularly well suited to provide a political boost because they can move quickly, in part because many are willing to forego encumbering environmental impact studies or ignore local labor laws. As one author tracking Chinese activity in Africa wryly noted, the finish dates of many high-profile Chinese infrastructure projects “often converge … around the election season.”
African rulers also make good use of Beijing’s inaptly named “non-interference” policy to feed the patronage networks underpinning their political power. Governments receiving an unconditional aid windfall from Beijing direct the lion’s share on average to the birth region of the country’s ruler.
Take former Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who distributed most of the money he reportedly received from the Chinese government to his cabinet officials—a blunt though effective way of retaining their loyalty. Similarly, the Chinese embassy in Equatorial Guinea allowed the ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea to award Beijing-funded scholarships to study in China, which the party then sold or distributed to the children of favored officials.
Palace Diplomacy Pays Dividends
This charm offensive has helped make Africa one of Beijing’s most dependable sources of support. African states comprised nearly half of the 37 signatories of a 2019 open letter defending China’s human rights abuses of its minority Uighur population. Last year, many African countries supported the Chinese candidate to head the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in a vote he easily won over the U.S. supported aspirant, and cast 30 of the 79 “yes” votes to pass a controversial Russia and China-backed U.N. cyber crime resolution opposed by the United States and many European countries.
As of 2016, 39 African governments had publicly supported Beijing’s preferred method—as opposed to abiding by a 2016 international tribunal ruling that the United States endorsed—for resolving its maritime disputes sparked by its expansionist South China Sea claims. In 2018, the last year Washington compiled this information, African countries’ average voting coincidence with the United States on important U.N. resolutions was a dismal 29 percent. Their voting was much more closely aligned with Beijing, which voted the opposite of Washington (save for two abstentions) on all those resolutions.
Beijing’s palace diplomacy is paying off even in the midst of the current pandemic. A number of African governments resisted public calls to evacuate their nationals from China at the height of its COVID-19 outbreak, giving the Chinese Communist Party much-needed support for its campaign to convince the world that it was effectively battling the pandemic.
The relationship is so strong, in fact, that it quickly weathers storms that would likely sink, at least temporarily, most other countries’ official relations with African countries. In April, reports of Africans suffering discrimination in the Chinese city of Guangzhou stirred unprecedented anger in Africa, and forced public denunciations from some African officials. Yet despite their public’s continuing wrath, African leaders hastened to accept Beijing’s non-apology. Official relations now appear mostly back on track.
China-Africa Ties and American Foreign Policy
The cozy official China-Africa bond will continue dogging U.S. foreign policy, including in the immediate near term. It will be difficult for Washington to build global momentum for holding Beijing accountable for its cover up of the coronavirus outbreak, given how unlikely many African leaders are to risk riling China. As Washington battles Beijing’s increasingly aggressive international agenda, the large, dependable bloc of African support that China enjoys will remain a competitive advantage for the Chinese Communist Party.
As unwelcome as this reality is for the United States, it does provide clarity that should shape American strategy toward Africa in four key ways.
First, rather than spreading itself thinly across the continent, Washington should focus on countries where it can make headway for its strategic priorities, such as Botswana, Ghana, and Kenya. Those are largely going to be better-governed, democratic countries with institutions that can check elite power. Authoritarian regimes’ shared governance philosophy with Beijing can create a powerful affinity, and there are fewer people for the Chinese government to woo in systems where power is consolidated within a small clique. Suitable countries should receive the full suite of U.S. engagement: periodic visits from senior U.S. officials; consideration for a free trade agreement; fully staffed embassies, including a commercial attaché; and heightened efforts to encourage investment from U.S. companies interested in Africa.
Smarter, more targeted U.S. engagement does not mean abandoning all the other countries in the region. Some, such as Djibouti, which is led by an authoritarian government entangled with Beijing, are too strategic for Washington to ignore. The United States also needs to maintain sufficient contact with important countries to ensure it can respond effectively to unforeseen opportunities, such as when a recent Sudanese revolution toppled long-time American foe and Chinese friend Omar al-Bashir. Even some of Beijing’s staunchest African partners display occasional restlessness with the relationship, and a few African rulers have risked irritating Beijing by canceling fiscally irresponsible, Chinese-involved projects. Those kerfuffles are obvious opportunities for the United States.
Second, the United States should focus its engagement in Africa on civil society and the middle class, as they do not benefit so directly from Chinese largesse as do their rulers. Citizens’ groups have already successfully pushed for transparency and accountability in their governments’ dealings with China. It was African activists who first exposed the widespread discrimination against Africans in Guangzhou. Washington should in particular tap the expertise of the many U.S. non-governmental organizations with long experience working with African civil society.
Third, Washington should make better use of American competitive advantages. The U.S. private sector’s strength and innovativeness is unparalleled, and Washington should do all it can to encourage and aid American companies to find opportunities in Africa. Strong American companies are the pillar of U.S. economic might, and their heightened activity in Africa would bolster the ties binding Washington to its African partners and strengthen the transparency and free market norms the continent desperately needs. The Trump administration’s Prosper Africa initiative is rightly designed to increase two-way trade and investment between the United States and Africa, but implementation has been too slow. The unfolding economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies the urgency, as invigorated U.S.-Africa economic exchange can quicken recovery for both sides.
Finally, Washington should consistently tout its admirable record in Africa. The United States is the largest source of foreign direct investment by stock in Africa. It is by far the largest humanitarian aid donor to the continent. Private American philanthropic giving to overseas causes, which in 2014 was nearly 10 times larger than the next most generous country’s private overseas giving, pours into the continent as well. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), launched by President George W. Bush, has saved millions of African lives. Other impactful American programs benefitting Africa include the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, Power Africa, Feed the Future, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, Prosper Africa, and the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiative.
Beijing is carpeting Africa with its “face mask diplomacy” propaganda, which is the newest permutation of a campaign promoting its own developmental and political model as superior to that of the West, particularly of the United States. Washington has no comparable, organized effort promoting the values underpinning the American experiment and which the United States wishes more countries would adopt (though, refreshingly, some U.S. ambassadors in Africa have, in what appears to be a coordinated campaign, written opinion pieces or given interviews highlighting U.S. assistance fighting COVID-19). Washington should not mimic the use of deception rife in Beijing’s messaging, but it should recognize that there is a competition of ideas underway in Africa that the United States risks losing.
Promoting the values for which the United States is the world’s standard bearer is currently challenging given the worldwide anger, including among African leaders, at the vile killing of George Floyd. Yet Washington should be able to simultaneously acknowledge America’s shortcomings while also maintaining the moral perspicacity to reject suggestions that it does not do a better job of protecting human rights than most other countries. This especially includes countries such as China, Iran, and many African states that have publicly criticized the United States, perhaps as a way to deflect from their own far worse records.
Since the Cold War ended, American policy has not evolved to account either for Africa’s growing strategic importance, or for the fact that the United States’ primary geopolitical competitor has groomed many African leaders into consistent supporters of its international agenda. This state of affairs is a disadvantage for Washington, but it also provides a starting point for creating an updated American strategy superior to Beijing’s formidable palace diplomacy.
This piece originally appeared in Texas National Security Review