Biden and Xi
Biden and Xi

United States – China in Africa: Democracy versus Development?

3 years ago
7 mins read

By Ejeviome Eloho Otobo

Given China’s significant economic influence in Africa, how can the United States support Africa to consolidate democracy, while promoting development? That was the question that I posed to panelists at a virtual policy dialogue on the theme “China and the Global Fight for Democracy” jointly organised by Foreign Policy magazine and the International Republican Institute in Washington DC on February 3, 2021. This was nearly a month after the insurrectionists stormed the United States Congress with the aim of overturning the certification of the results of then President-elect Joe Biden. My question was prompted by the comments made by some of the panelists implying that China’s engagement in Africa posed a threat to the democracy in the region. The inchoate response that I got to that question from the African panelist was something to the effect that African countries need to prioritise democracy.

The False Choice between Democracy and Development

That response made me wonder whether African countries were being encouraged to make a false choice between democracy and development. By highlighting the economic dimension of China’s influence in Africa, I deliberately sought to draw attention to the fact that China is having the upper hand in supporting Africa’s economic development. If African countries are to achieve a semblance of balance between promoting development and advancing democracy, they will need more help than is currently on offer. Chinese leaders have described their relations with Africa in such cryptic terms as “win-win cooperation” and “mutual beneficial cooperation” – all pointing in the development direction. If the West, especially the United States, wants to compete with China, it would need to match and even exceed China’s economic support, encompassing the full gamut, including trade, development assistance and investment.

In his recorded address to the AU Summit held in early February, President Biden spoke of the need to work together with Africa “to advance our shared vision of a better future; a future of growing trade and investment that advances prosperity for all nations; a future that advances lives and peace and security; a future committed to investing in our democratic institutions and promoting human rights”. This was an echo of his article published in the March/April 2020 edition of Foreign Affairs. In it, candidate Biden said the United States will “need to do more to integrate our friends in Latin America and Africa into the broader network of democracies and to seize opportunities for cooperation in those regions.” This suggests a great awareness of the inextricable linkage between democracy and development; though the balance, in US view, appears tilted more towards democracy. 

Thus, China and the United States appear to be adopting contrasting approaches in their engagement with the region. This is not simply a matter of competition between the “Beijing Consensus” and “the Washington Consensus”, although there are some elements of that. The Washington Consensus refers to the notion that economic growth and prosperity are best achieved by orthodox free enterprise policies. By contrast, Beijing Consensus is predicated on the notion that economic growth and prosperity can also be achieved by state-led and managed policies. This is the promise and premise of the African countries that present themselves as developmental states. One way to describe those strategies is to reach into the scripture, wherein Jesus told the devil at the moment of his temptation that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God”.

That metaphor is apt inasmuch as the two big powers appear to be luring African countries to make a choice between democracy and development. China’s strategy seems to be that man cannot rely on democracy alone because survival depends on having bread. On the other hand, the United States, in particular the new Biden administration, has placed promotion of democracy at the centre of its foreign policy, emphasizing advancement of human rights and combating authoritarianism as pre-requisites for peace and prosperity. 

Three types of diplomacy in Africa 

The year 2000 was a major inflection point for both the United States and China in their relations with Africa. In that year, the United States adopted the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which offered improved market access for African exports into USA. This was accompanied by periodic ministers of trade from both sides. In that same year, China also inaugurated the Forum on China and Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which initially brought together ministers from Africa and China on a triennial basis. FOCAC meetings were subsequently upgraded to summit level beginning in 2006.

China has mastered three types of diplomacy in Africa: senior leaders’ personal diplomacy (face-to-face and one-on-one), building diplomacy, and combating disease diplomacy. Face-to-face senior leaders’ diplomacy refers to the practice of senior Chinese political leaders’ frequent visits to Africa and inviting African senior political leaders to China in return. The genesis of Chinese leaders’ frequent visits to Africa can be traced to the aftermath of Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989 which were harshly put down by the Chinese authorities. This elicited strong condemnation from the Western countries but solidarity from African countries. Six African countries were the first, anywhere in the world, to extend an official invitation to China’s Foreign Minister to visit their countries in Summer of 1989, as a way of breaking from the severe diplomatic isolation that China encountered.

In appreciation of that gesture, China began the practice of having its Foreign Minister make its first visits to Africa every new year since 1991. Even this year, as COVID-19 related toll mounted worldwide, the Chinese Foreign Minister made in-person visits to five African countries (Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Tanzania and Seychelles). 

By contrast the United States, under the new Biden administration, the US Secretary of State held virtual meetings with the Presidents of Nigeria and Kenya. These were preceded by President Biden’s phone call to the President of South Africa and Vice-President Harris’s call to the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo. These phone calls, rather than personal visits can be justified on the grounds that the Biden administration is new. That view glosses over the pattern that has emerged over years.


United States Secretaries of State relate with African Presidents as if they are equals, a practice that many Africans find disrespectful. More significantly, during the period 2000-2020, Chinese Presidents made 25 visits to 17 African countries. US Presidents made 22 visits to 13 African countries during the same period. But that data conceals an important fact: the last US presidential visit to Africa was in 2015 compared to the last Chinese president’s visit to the region in 2018. Even more telling, at the first and only U.S-Africa Leaders’ Summit held in 2014, President Obama did not deign to have a one-on-one meeting with any African president.

Building diplomacy refers to the significant offers of assistance that China has made to constructing important buildings for African countries and regional organisations. One recent report published by the conservative Heritage Foundation titled ‘Government Buildings in Africa are a Likely Vector for Chinese Spying’ found that since 1966 China has constructed or renovated 186 buildings in 40 of 54 African countries. Recently completed, ongoing or promised high-profile building projects include the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, the ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kenya, the annex of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ghana, and the diplomatic academy of Tunisia.

China’s response to COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, involving the supply of masks and vaccines to African countries, dubbed vaccine diplomacy, has attracted much-deserved plaudits. But before there was COVID-19, African countries have had to confront HIV/AIDS and Ebola. In those instances, the United States offered significant support to African countries respectively through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and its dispatch of a huge contingent of troops, policy experts and health officials to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to support those countries’ efforts in combating Ebola disease. US has announced that it will buy and deliver half a billion doses of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to developing countries, of which African countries will be major beneficiaries.

Human Rights, Economic Assistance and Non-Interference (HEN)

Examining Sino-US competition for influence in Africa through the prism of HEN offers much insight into their relations with Africa. As a general proposition, many African leaders are closely aligned with China on issues of human rights, rely heavily on Chinese economic assistance and both sides strongly advocate the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. On the last issue, there is nothing wrong in African countries jealously guarding against interference in their domestic affairs, but when invoking that principle becomes a veil to cover up human rights violations and associated failures to prevent and manage conflicts, there is a problem. It bears emphasis that the African Union itself has committed to a paradigm shift of non-indifference “when there is serious threat to legitimate order to restore peace and stability”. 

The United States has traditionally prided itself as a defender of democracy and promoter of human rights and has many instruments to advance that cause. But US role faces very close scrutiny for a variety of reasons. According to New York University’s Brennan Centre for Justice, 361 Voting Restrictive Laws have been proposed in forty-seven states in the USA. The recent vote in the House of Representatives to establish a September 11-style Commission to investigate insurrectionist’s assault on Congress attracted limited from the Republican party.

The United States maintains close ties with some authoritarian regimes in Africa in the name of combating terrorism, thus undercutting its record of promoting democracy in the region. Is American exceptionalism waning? Today, we confront a situation in which China and many African political leaders are in alignment; while the youth and opposition leaders, who face clampdown in their agitation for civil and political liberties, may not be assured of US vigorous and consistent support.

There is a huge gap between US and China’s economic support for Africa. A few figures suffice. China’s two-way trade with African countries stood at US$187 billion in 2020, while US trade was US$46billion. US foreign direct investment as of 2019 stood at 43billion marginally lower than China’s US$44.4billion. Some reports put China’s investment in Africa at over US$110 billion, but that mixes investment with contracts. It is in development assistance that the gap is widest. China has made multi-year pledges of economic assistance for Africa over many years.

At FOCAC IV In 2009, China announced a pledge of $10billion in financial support to Africa. That amount was doubled in 2012 to $20billion for the period 2012-2015. Then in 2015, at the FOCAC Summit in Johannesburg, the amount was trebled to $60 billion for three years up to 2018; and at the 2018 FOCAC Summit in Beijing, the amount remained at the same level of $60billion.

Forty-six African countries have signed the Memorandum of Understanding on the China-inspired Belt and Road Initiative. On the other hand, the USA allocated US$60 billion for the worldwide operations of its newly established Development Finance Corporation and Development Credit Authority created in the context of the Better Utilisation of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act in October 2018.  

Some students of China-US relations foresee a likely path of ‘co-opetition’ (cooperating on some matters and competing on others). This suggests that every effort will be exerted to avoid the ‘containment’ strategy of the US-Soviet Union Cold War era rivalry. African countries should not be lulled into choosing democracy or development. They would be wise to get the best deal on both issues from the most appropriate partners. Yet dependence on partners is not a viable long-term path for African countries.

  • Ejeviome Eloho Otobo is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Global Governance Institute, Brussels, Belgium and author of Africa in Transition: A New Way of Looking at Progress in the Region.


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