There’s a lot riding on the outcome of the US presidential election in terms of Africa’s relations with China

A Trump victory in the 3 November US elections is likely to see the US intensify its attempts to roll back China’s successful Africa policy. A Biden administration will find areas in which its US-Africa policy will converge with that of China. The US and China will be more likely to cooperate within multilateral forums and will actively seek a multilateral approach to global challenges, such as peacekeeping and health matters.

By David Monyae | Daily Maverick

American democracy is too big and fortified to completely collapse. However, the controversy over Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 elections and the events of the last four years have shown that indeed America’s democracy is not completely impregnable. The 3 November 2020 US elections are rightly perceived as “generational elections”. More than anything else, these elections will become a major landmark and a point of reference in the history of America. They stand to make or break not just President Donald J Trump but America itself, as a global hegemon.


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On Wednesday, 21 October 2020, the African Centre for the Study of the United States, based at Wits University, will hold a timely virtual town hall meeting open to the public. African and American scholars will debate the vexing questions: What does the US election outcome mean for Africa-China, Africa-Europe and global politics? Why should Africans be concerned about the state of American body politics and more so its elections? Where do China and Europe fit in both the outcome of the US elections and their implications on its own quest for development?



First, Africa invested heavily in human capital (African-Americans constitute 13.4% of the total 328,239,523 US population, according to the July 2019 estimates of the US Census Bureau), raw material and knowledge in the development of America’s economy and its electoral politics.

As a country that depicted itself as a “City upon a Hill”, the US is no stranger to Africa’s politics. Its footprints are seen in all phases of the continent’s political and economic life. It has also influenced Africa through its soft power by expanding education through missionary schools. Many non-governmental organisations from America have also been instrumental in advocacy work across Africa.

Most of the founding leaders of African national liberation movements and current leaders in different fields were educated in America. America has therefore played a critical role in shaping what we consider as African politics.


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More importantly, America intervenes in Africa’s electoral politics and often plays a critical role in its development through investments in infrastructure, health, education and trade (Agoa being the main trade agreement). In doing so, it competes with other players such as the EU and the rising China. The outcome of the upcoming elections carries heavy implications on the African continent. Due to these factors and more, it is in Africa’s interest to pay great attention to the new direction of the US policy towards Africa and the world after 3 November 2020.

I intend to dispel outright three major assumptions erroneously made by observers of the American elections. Firstly, the elections are about American domestic politics and the illiberal Donald J Trump – a leader who has undoubtedly sledge-hammered the liberal international order largely built by America in the post-World War 2 system. The second assumption that these observers make is that the American democratic system is “remarkably stable and self-regulating”. Thirdly, Trump’s ruinous four years have accelerated the decline of America’s economic and global leadership and should Joe Biden win the elections, his administration will likely reverse all of the above.

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There are structural changes taking place in America’s real and indeed perceived global power. The US-China rivalry will continue, and Africa is going to be a stage where it openly plays out. The US will intensify its attempts to roll back China’s successful Africa policy.

Graham Allison and Joseph Nye have both rung the alarm bells about America’s standing in the global arena. A 25 October article by Allison in The National Interest declared: “China Is Now the World’s Largest Economy. We Shouldn’t Be Shocked.” According to Allison, we should not be shocked because China has already displaced the US as the largest economy in the world.

Joseph Nye, another Washington insider scholar has laid out five US future scenarios: 1) the end of the globalised liberal order; 2) a 1930s-like authoritarian challenge; 3) a China-dominated world order; 4) a green international agenda; and 5) “more of the same”.

Regardless of who wins the November elections, Trump or Biden, America will not be the same. There is little to say about Trump’s America First foreign policy and its destructive impact on US relations with allies and foes. Although it is increasingly becoming unlikely that he will win, if he does, some of the bleak futures that Nye imagined will certainly come to fruition.


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The greatest danger in this scenario will be a high likelihood for heightened tensions resulting in accidental wars in the South China Sea, the India-China border dispute, between China-Taiwan, and on the African continent where American and Chinese troops face each other in Djibouti. Advanced weaponry, nuclear and otherwise, needs leaders who have a level-headed temperament. The 21st century belongs to Asia and Africa’s trade with this region is high. Any disturbances in Asia will impact the continent adversely.

There are structural changes taking place in America’s real and indeed perceived global power. The US-China rivalry will continue, and Africa is going to be a stage where it openly plays out. The US will intensify its attempts to roll back China’s successful Africa policy.

The first area in which the US will lock horns with China in Africa will be on infrastructure building. Washington will exert its weight within international financial institutions such as the Bretton Woods to restrict poor African countries from signing new infrastructure deals with China. This will come under the so-called “debt trap” narrative. Although the debt trap narrative comes as a genuine altruistic move to protect poor Africans from what it perceives as an expansionist China, the main motives are none other than stopping China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an alternative route to the current US-dominated routes in global trade.


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Agathe Demarais, the global forecasting director at The Economist Intelligence Unit argues in the South China Morning Post that even if Biden wins, “there’s little perspective for meaningful improvement in US-China relations… The two countries will remain locked in a strategic competition for economic and technological dominance”.

However, China has an upper hand in Africa because while America talks negatively about China, it does not have an alternative solution. In other words, talk is cheap: for example, American hi-tech companies do not have an appetite to invest heavily in Africa’s hi-tech industry.

There are however high chances that a Biden administration will find areas in which its US-Africa policy will converge with that of China. The US and China will be more likely to cooperate within multilateral forums. First, Washington will certainly rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change and also return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran. In addition, Washington will actively seek a multilateral approach to global challenges such as peacekeeping and health matters. Such a move will see joint Washington and Beijing efforts boosting Africa’s Agenda 2063.

Still at an international level, a Biden victory might revitalise America’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We might see an America that is once again committed to be a rational leader, not insular looking as has been the case under the Trump presidency. Once again, there is a lot riding on the impending election, as it has the potential to change not only America but the globe in fundamental ways.

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