Home » The US wants to challenge China in Africa on technology and infrastructure

The US wants to challenge China in Africa on technology and infrastructure

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The US wants to challenge China in Africa on technology and infrastructure

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently left for a visit of about ten days to several African countries, with the aim of strengthening relations in a continent where China has become an important player. Yellen traveled to Senegal, Zambia and then South Africa.

The visit comes just weeks after the United States-Africa summit in Washington in December, at which the White House announced investments of several billion dollars in the next years. China and Russia they have long been trying to increase their influence in Africa and the United States is now in a defensive position, trying to protect its position on the continent.

“I think the main objective (of the trip, ed) will be to position itself in relation to Chinawhich is a pity because African countries want to be seen for what they are, not as a battlefield between great powers”: this is how the American expedition defined Susan Page, former US ambassador to South Sudan and professor at the University of Michigan. The risk, in fact, is that the continent could definitively transform itself into an economic battlefield, also embracing technology and information security.

Chinese investment

The Nairobi Expressway it is a road that winds through the Kenyan metropolis like a gigantic river: it stretches for twenty-seven kilometers through the heart of the capital and connects the country’s most important airport with the central district, the National Museum and the Presidential Palace. The construction, under the aegis of China, lasted only two years. Now the toll road is helping to relieve congestion on the city’s busy thoroughfares.

The pace of Chinese investment in Africa has increased over the past two decades. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, foreign direct investment (FDI) in the mainland grew at an average rate of 18% per year from 2004 to 2016.

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Financing of Chinese-procured projects in Africa has also increased and in 2015 reached a peak of 55 billion dollars, almost twenty times the level of the FDI. Similarly, China was the top exporter to Africa in 2016, accounting for 17.5 percent of the continent’s imports. As of mid-2017, more than ten thousand Chinese-owned companies were operating in Africa.

The largest companies by value are SOEs that dominate the industriesenergyof the transport and some raw material. Since 2010, one third of Africa’s electricity grid and infrastructure has been financed and built by Chinese companies. Investments, in fact, were concentrated in a few key sectors. The construction sector, with the creation of Chinese-managed special economic zones or the construction of toll roads or bridges, was the main channel for FDI, accounting for 35% of total investments in 2020.

Assuming an annual growth rate of 5% from 2020 levels – as has been the case for the past five years – Chinese FDI to Africa could reach $90 billion by 2035. 10% growth rate instead it would imply $181 billion by 2035, which could quickly make China the top foreign investor in Africa unless the pace from others picks up. This is not a surreal hypothesis: in the period 2011-2015, Chinese FDI in Africa grew by 21% per year.

The American answer

China’s economic engagement in Africa has not gone unnoticed by US policymakers. In 2018, the Trump administration’s “New strategy for Africa: Expanding Economic and Security Ties on the Basis of Mutual Respect” mentions China 25 times, but fails to mention Nigeria or South Africa, the largest economies in sub-Saharan Africa, a proof that this strategy was designed more for fight China than to engage with local countries.

This attitude has largely been maintained by the Biden administration. However, the president and his aides do not want African leaders to perceive that official US interests are driven primarily by a desire to counter China. In August, during a press conference in South Africa, Blinken said that the administration’s strategy is not centered around rivalry with China and Russia. US officials dealing with African politics are aware of Europe’s colonial past and do not want African nations to be treated as pawns in a larger geopolitical struggle.

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In this regard, the former US Secretary of State John Bolton he looked elsewhere, defining Chinese investments in Africa as predatory: “the strategic use of debt keeps African states captive to Beijing’s wishes and requests”. These criticisms have found greater force with the Belt and Road Initiative. However, supporters of Chinese engagement in Africa have argued that these long-term investments favor greater independence of African countries and do not present the paternalistic or imperialistic conditions often common to Westerners. More troubling, however, are fears that China could use its growing economic power to secure concessions that could be economically and politically damaging to the continent.

Technological risks and the Huawei case

While President Joe Biden’s remarks at the recent US-Africa leaders’ summit made no explicit reference to China, the meeting’s findings confirm that the US administration considers the investments and it technological development as a zero-sum game that the United States cannot lose. In particular, Biden’s announcement of several initiatives related to the technology sector signals an intention to counter China’s activity.

This is especially true with regard to Huawei, a tech giant that seems to participate in China’s great influence in the African technological ecosystem. Despite allegations of surveillance operations, insecure networks and dangerous data handling, Huawei currently makes up around 70% of Africa’s 4G infrastructure. In November 2022, it announced plans to increase investment “to support the continued development of 5G and facilitate digital transformation in the region.”

In August 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that Huawei would help the Ugandan government trace the activities of opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi. Similarly, unnamed Zambian officials said the Chinese firm would help the government access the phones and Facebook pages of opponents of then-President Edgar Lungu. In Burundi, South Africa, Senegal and Egypt, Huawei allegedly censored content and restricted access to numerous websites. Many African countries also participate in Huawei’s “Safe City” initiative, which provides facial and license plate recognition, social media monitoring and other surveillance features, with the aim of tackling crime.

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Huawei’s entrenchment and China’s broader influence in the African tech ecosystem should alarm the West for several reasons. The attention of US-Africa summit for technology it is therefore a first step in reviving relationships and reducing these vulnerabilities. As Biden prepares for his visit to the continent, he must be ready to accelerate on technology cooperation, using concerns about Huawei as a starting point.

First, the American president should proactively ensure i Congressional Funding for Digital Transformation with Africa (DTA, Digital Transformation with Africa), a project he launched at the December conference. Many African nations partner with Huawei because its equipment and services are cheap and readily available, and the company has experience operating in remote areas. DTA aims to undermine Huawei by offering reliable alternatives.

To effectively mitigate the influence of Huawei and other Chinese tech giants, the United States must act as an alternative partner. A renewed focus on Africa provides an opportunity for Biden to strengthen the United States‘ technological edge and global leadership position and to help build a secure telecommunications infrastructure.

Copertina EPA/Kim Ludbrook’s photo

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