Getting US Africa policy right is essential to compete with a rising China.
Image of President Cyril Ramaphosa and Chairman Xi Jinping by GovernmentZA via Flickr.

Crafting U.S. Africa Policy Amidst Chinese Competition

Despite China’s Ties, America’s Africa Policy Should Focus on Mutual Benefit


By Charles Ray – Former U.S. Ambassador; Chair of the Africa Program, Foreign Policy Research Institute

Why American Africa Policy Must Change

Two issues that have dominated US policy towards the countries of Africa for the past few years are the fight against international terrorist organizations and the growing competition between the United States and China. While both have implications for US national security, the one that has the greatest long-term impact is our reaction to China’s increased presence around the world, but especially in Africa.

For decades, US policy towards Africa has shown remarkable consistency across Republican and Democratic administrations and between the executive and legislative branches, with each administration launching a signature policy related to the continent. Sadly, these same administrations have consistently viewed Africa as marginal in world affairs and primarily as a source of violence and misery. In recent years, with the rise of China as a world power, the US has been competing with China and Russia for influence in Africa. During the Trump administration, the reaction to Russia’s presence was tepid at best. The main focus was on China, and from all indications, this will continue under the Biden administration, albeit without the intemperate language, antagonism, and transactional approach that characterized the previous administration.

While there is no argument that China is a global competitor, the danger is that in developing our Africa policy, we will make it the central focus of US policy and, in the process, sow the seeds of our own defeat. 

The Biden administration from the outset has said the right things, but Africa still seems to be on the periphery of US strategic thinking. It is time to stop thinking of Africa as unimportant in world affairs. In terms of size, population growth, potential impact on climate change, the global economy, and global security, Africa does matter.  By 2050, the population of the continent will increase by about 500 million to a total of 2.4 billion people, and currently, 60 percent of the population is under the age of 25. By the year 2100, half the world’s population growth will be in Africa. This is a youthful, tech-savvy population that can be an asset to the global economy or its worst nightmare depending on what opportunities are made available to them.

Chinese Competition on the African Continent

China is not the only foreign presence in Africa that should be of concern — the Russians never left and have recently increased military activity — but in terms of economic impact, China is dominant. Over the past decade, US trade with Africa fell 50 percent while China’s economic activity has expanded. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has made inroads in many countries. An ambitious plan designed to develop new trade routes connecting China with the rest of the world, it has brought numerous infrastructure projects to Africa. But BRI is about more than infrastructure. It is a feature in China’s rivalry with the US for global economic dominance and is designed to provide China with its own international trade routes.

The temptation for US policymakers is to view the US-China rivalry in the Cold War US-USSR face-off in Africa when the two powers used African proxy forces against each other. Many African countries still suffer the effects of that period. It would be a mistake for the US to take that path for several reasons. The continent’s economic, political, and social structures cannot withstand it, and the US-China relationship in no way resembles the US-USSR Cold War relationship, at least not yet. We are not threatening each other with nuclear arsenals big enough to render the planet uninhabitable and the level of daily trade between the US and China dwarfs the highest level of annual US-USSR trade. In other words, despite being rivals, the US and China are also dependent upon each other.

How, then, should the US approach competition with China on the African continent? Then-candidate Joe Biden said it well in a 2019 campaign speech in New York: “We do need to get tough with China . . . And the most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of friends and partners to challenge China’s abusive behavior even as we seek to deepen cooperation on issues where our interests converge, like climate change and preventing nuclear proliferation.”

Changing the American Approach: Crafting a Better Africa Policy

An effective Africa policy should be based on mutual benefit and partnership rather than patronage. US policy toward the 54 sovereign countries of Africa should not be centered on our competition with China but on the specific needs and capabilities of each of those countries, as well as the regional and multinational groupings on the continent. This will require a major shift in American attitude toward Africa. The continent will continue to have problems for the foreseeable future, but with the right attitude, many of those problems can be mitigated.

When I served as American ambassador to the Republic of Zimbabwe from 2009 to 2012, one of the slogans popular in Washington was “trade not aid.” A high-sounding sentiment that was never made a reality as has been previously mentioned. We talked a good game but failed to walk the talk.

There are a number of things that we as a country can do that could establish the United States as a reliable partner in Africa and set us on the path to restoring our influence on the continent:

  1. Develop programs that encourage American investment in Africa and work in partnership with African governments to create conditions that encourage domestic investment.
  2. Focus on the youth. In the coming decades, Africa will be the youngest continent on the planet, with millions of working-age people who will need jobs and who will also be a significant tech-savvy customer base.
  3. Provide alternatives to China. The BRI’s focus on critical infrastructure could be met by providing incentives to US companies to bid on such projects in Africa. With sufficient incentives, American firms could provide better quality, more jobs for locals, and transfer of technology and knowledge — things not available in most Chinese projects.
  4. Emphasize the shared values of the US and Africa with more people-to-people programs.
  5. Develop policies that balance the need to address climate change with the continent’s need for power.
  6. Take the lead in international efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa.

The influence imbalance will not change overnight, but a dedicated effort from the Biden administration could start the process. Now, according to K. Riva Levinson, a political and business strategist who focuses on Sub-Saharan Africa, is the time to be bold: “Time waits for no one, particularly so in times of global pandemic.”



This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Civility Without Borders” series, covering a range of topics fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. Through this series, we ask scholars, journalists, government officials, and activists to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.

Charles Ray
Former U.S. Ambassador; Chair of the Africa Program, Foreign Policy Research Institute | Website | + posts

Charles Ray retired from the US Foreign Service in 2012 after a 30-year career. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he spent 20 years in the US Army. During his 30 years in the Foreign Service, he was posted to China, Thailand, Sierra Leona, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe. He served as deputy chief of mission in Sierra Leone, was the first US consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and served as ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe. Since his retirement from public service in 2012, he has been a full-time freelance writer, lecturer, and consultant, and has done research on leadership and ethics. He is the author of more than 200 books of fiction and nonfiction. Ray is a trustee and chair of the Africa Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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