The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the tripartite relationship between the US, China and Africa. The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the way many African leaders view the United States, given that the country paid little attention and provided little assistance to Africa during the global crisis. On the contrary, China provided swift and comprehensive COVID-19 assistance to the African continent. This fits into a wider theme of low levels of interest in Africa among US policy makers, whilst Chinese policy makers have had a keen interest in the continent. This article examines what these policies mean, and the implications for the future of American and Chinese interests in Africa.
COVID-19: Cementing the Sino-African relations of tomorrow?
It is undeniable that COVID-19 has had a tremendous impact on many aspects of life over the past two years: among others, the dynamics of geopolitics couldn’t escape the consequences of the pandemic. COVID-19 has forced many Western nations to take a pause from exporting power abroad – the ability of a state to have other states aligned with its objectives – and to focus their resources on fixing domestic issues related to COVID-19. China has taken this lull in global politics to further advance and consolidate its power over the African continent. In the following sections, I will argue that the Chinese government has used COVID-19 to increase its soft power in Africa. Soft power is defined as the ability of a state to entice other states to advance its objectives through enticement or encouragement, with a possible view to transforming this into hard power. Hard power is the ability to force other states to submit to their aims, traditionally seen as military force. I will also look at the wider relationships between the US, China and Africa, by discussing the different development strategies offered by the US and China, often referred to as the aid vs trade debate, as well as the role that terrorism and infrastructure investments play in the interests that the two superpowers have in Africa.
Vaccine coverage in the African continent
Vaccine coverage in Africa is significantly lower than in other global regions. This is due to multiple factors, such as Africa’s underdeveloped health infrastructure and the inconsistent and erratic flow of vaccines from Western countries. African countries depend on the international vaccine supply, due to their virtually non-existent capacity for domestic vaccine production. This means that they import approximately 99% of all vaccines used in the continent.
Throughout the pandemic, Western countries have prioritised vaccinating their own populations and one way they have ensured this is by placing large procurement orders for vaccines. This has consequently led to prices being too high for African states to purchase enough vaccines and reduced the number available to African states.
By March 2021 the world’s richest counties, such as the U.K., France, Canada and the U.S. that make up 14% of the global population had purchased 53% of the most promising eight vaccines available. Additionally, when African states do receive vaccines, they are limited by their lack of a ‘Cold-chain’, required for them to remain cold between manufacture and use through specific storage and transport facilities. African states generally lack these facilities making it extremely difficult to transport and store vaccines around the country.
Mask diplomacy, vaccine diplomacy and the South-South cooperation
In the early days of the pandemic, China’s outpouring of assistance, through their use of ‘mask diplomacy’ – the use of masks, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and medical equipment, such as ventilators, as a diplomatic bargaining tool – and the subsequent ‘vaccine diplomacy’ – the use of vaccines, manufacturing capacity and licences as a tool of diplomacy – came at a time when the United States had taken a step back from its role in providing assistance to Africa. China is engaging in these two forms of diplomacy in an attempt to increase its influence over the African continent within the wider Chinese rhetoric of ‘South-South’ cooperation. The Global South is a term to describe a grouping of countries from Latin America, Africa, Southern Asia and Oceania, which is often used as the alternative bloc to Western countries (1). South-South cooperation is therefore the act of two or more countries from the Global South assisting each other. China’s use of South-South cooperation can be interpreted as an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Global South and cement China as the leader of the Global South bloc (2).
China aims to achieve this by portraying itself as ‘one of them’, as can be seen in Xi Jinping’s speeches at the tri-annual FOCAC (Forum On China Africa Cooperation) summit. FOCAC is a key summit about Sino-African relations where areas of common interest and cooperation are discussed. Xi Jinping’s speeches were effective: they placed a large emphasis on friendship and cooperation between China and Africa, as well as shared struggles and a common goal for development. China aims to use this acquired influence to help achieve its grand strategy, such as creating a global order based on China’s economic and foreign policy interests that will rival the US’ ‘rules based order’. In order to create this new Sino-centric global order, China must have a considerable number of other states that are willing to operate by the new rulebook. If this plan is successful, it will make the future easier for China. Thus, COVID-19 has given the Chinese government another opportunity to increase their ever-growing power and influence in Africa.
Africa has been receiving an increasing percentage of US foreign assistance relative to other global regions over the last two decades, rising from 16% in 1998 to 37% in 2018. This had an approximately 70% weighting towards healthcare initiatives mainly focused on combating the AIDS epidemic, nutrition programmes, and child and maternal healthcare. Throughout the Obama administration, the total US foreign assistance to Africa fluctuated between $7 and $8 billion dollars per year.
In 2019, the distribution of US aid to Sub-Saharan Africa was 75% to health initiatives, 8% to agricultural and economic development, 7% to security, 4% to social programmes, 4% to human rights and governance and 2% for the environment. However, there is serious doubt over the impact this aid has on poverty reduction and economic development in Africa, with many academics, both economically left- and right-wing, arguing that high amounts of aid over long periods of time, such as the US’ aid to Africa, leads to unfavourable conditions for poverty reduction. Right-wing academics such as Milton Friedman, argued that strengthening governments comes at the expense of the private sector and would create a scenario in which the government would be less inclined to maintain an environment conducive to business (3). Many left-wing academics have also criticised long term foreign aid, arguing that it gives more money and power to the bourgeois class, which is already the most powerful group in society. This class would be negatively impacted by the termination of foreign aid and thus has a vested interest in keeping the poorest in society poor (3) to ensure that their financial income remain stable.
Furthermore, at the beginning of the pandemic, the Trump presidency was very outspoken against the World Health Organisation (WHO) and its response to the COVID-19 outbreak, as shown by Trump’s policy of withholding WHO contribution payments, which limited the available budget. WHO contribution payments are a membership fee paid by member countries and are calculated based on each country’s GDP and population. Tedros Adhanom, the Director General of the WHO, argues that this constrained the WHO’s options and thus impacted their COVID-19 response, allowing the virus to take root in Africa with far greater ease. Tedros Adhanom is the first African to hold the position of Director General and he had his candidacy supported by the African Union, many African states and China. This can be seen as a prime example of the divergence in viewpoints between the US and African states. Not only did the US government publicly criticise the WHO under Tedros Adhanom, but also stated that his candidacy was a poor choice. On the other side, China’s opinions seemed to run far more in line with those of African states, given that China supported Tedros Adhanom as a candidate. After Trump’s criticisms of the WHO, the African Union, African states and China made public statements reaffirming their support to the WHO, again helping China to portray itself as a member of the Global South. As opposed to the US’ hesitancy, partly caused by their own domestic COVID-19 issues during the opening months of the pandemic, China swooped in to give African states much needed help and assistance, pledging to donate vaccines to 40 African countries, to provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to 18 African state, as well as negotiating debt restructuring or refinancing with African states worth a total of $15 billion. This means that China is agreeing to give African states some leeway in their debt repayments, doing so by engaging in individualized discussions with single African countries, again showing that they want to portray their image as one of assisting and leading other Global South states.
The Chinese government has pledged to donate approximately one billion doses of their vaccines to African states. As generous as this offer is, Africa is a continent of 1.3 billion people each requiring at least two but more likely three vaccine doses, which means that Africa is likely to require, at a minimum, 3.9 billion doses of vaccine to fully vaccinate everyone. The final number may prove to be far higher than this due to high levels of vaccine wastage across the continent, as was seen in Nigeria when 1 million doses of vaccines expired, and were subsequently destroyed, in November of 2021. African states may feel that Chinese efforts, although well intentioned, are not enough to bring the COVID-19 situation in Africa under control and, as a result, may not feel the sense of indebtedness to China that the Chinese government is expecting. Consequently, the rewards that China is able to reap from their vaccine diplomacy may be limited.
However, China’s benevolence may be hiding wider geopolitical aims. Of the 18 countries that received Chinese PPE in the April 2020 shipment, all but two had signed up to be part of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). The BRI is a series of global trade and infrastructure deals aimed at spreading Chinese influence around the world. (The two states that had not signed up to the BRI at the time the aid was given were Guinea-Bissau and Burkina-Faso, which both nevertheless conduct a great deal of trade with China). Since then, Guinea-Bissau has signed up to the BRI, supporting the claim that mask and vaccine diplomacy have had a positive impact on how African states view China and that the Chinese government can reap concrete rewards from their mask and vaccine diplomacy. The BRI consists of numerous projects around the world, many of which are in Africa. In general, BRI projects are centred around infrastructure projects such as the Karuma and Isimba Hydropower Projects in Uganda, that aim to construct two hydroelectric dams in the country. It is often believed that China’s targeted benevolence is a means to increase Chinese soft power in states where China holds a considerable stake (4). This suggests that China believes clever political manoeuvring through mask and vaccine diplomacy during the pandemic will benefit other aspects of their international policies and interests. This will happen by showing hesitant countries that China can be a force for good on the continent. The case of Guinea-Bissau would suggest that Chinese policy makers were correct in their strategic thinking.
At the same time, the US strategy to keep African states on-side doesn’t seem to be effective. In recent years, many policy experts remarked that the United States have tried to dissuade African states from joining the BRI – but without providing any strong alternatives to it. Overall, the US must come up with an alternative development plan for Africa in order to compete with the Chinese strategies in the continent.
Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)
Aside from mask and vaccine diplomacy, the Chinese state is using other avenues such as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to increase their power in Africa. Chinese FDI to Africa has rapidly increased to $110 billion in 2019, a 100-fold increase from the early 2000s. On the other hand, US FDI to Africa has been declining, falling from $69 billion in 2014 to $47.5 billion in 2020. When this is compared to the aforementioned US foreign assistance levels, it is clear that the US policy towards Africa is one that focuses on aid over trade, whilst the Chinese are investing in Africa and as a result helping to develop local economies and industries. In addition to the land investments of the BRI, the Maritime Silk Road, a series of infrastructure projects being constructed around the world to assist China’s maritime trade (5), is also helping to bolster African economies by connecting Africa to the wider world. Examples of these are the expansion of Mombasa port and the Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya, allowing African products to reach the large markets of Asia, Europe and North America with far greater ease to the African producers and greatly lowering transportation costs. In the Kenyan case, the railway construction allows for the goods made in the capital Nairobi, 250 miles inland, to be transported to the port city of Mombasa at a far cheaper cost and then loaded onto larger container ships using more efficient methods and from there transported around the world. Prior to Chinese infrastructure investment, producers in Nairobi would have to load their goods onto trucks and drive them to the port, taking far longer and at much greater cost.
The war on terror
The strained US-Africa relationship will provide many challenges for the US in the post-COVID-19 world. President Biden has made many statements about the need to continue the W ar O n T error and to not let terror organisations regroup and grow in strength. Africa is home to a huge variety of terror organisations. There is no single defining characteristic of terrorism in Africa, partly because the term is very subjective and highly contested, and partly because there is such a wide range of organisations that could be considered terrorist groups. Terrorism in Africa can take the form of religious movements, such as the Islamic Al-Qaeda or the Christian ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’, of anti-government and secessionist movements such as the ‘National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad’ (a separatist group in Northern Mali), as well as groups motivated by linguistic, ethnic, and economic reasons. It would be impossible for the Biden administration to carry out its global anti-terror aims without a considerable focus on Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and other Jihadist organisations that operate within Africa, such as Islamic State West Africa Provence and Boko Haram in West Africa, or Al-Shabaab in Somalia, which have historically been the main focus of the W ar O n T error.
The US is currently combating these terror organisations through its network of Sahelian military bases stretching from Dakar in Senegal all the way to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Military operations like this require large amounts of infrastructure and supply routes across numerous states. In order to transport military equipment to a base, it is important to have cordial relations with all states en route to guarantee a constant supply to the troops. Given the Chinese infrastructure and trade investments in Africa, many African countries may soon decide to align with China. This is particularly true for states like Mali and Guinea in West Africa, who have a considerably higher opinion rating for China than they do the US, thanks to China’s various interactions with these states.
This is the ultimate goal of the Chinese South-South cooperation strategy, to get other countries on side to build a global network of alliances. This poses a risk to US supply routes as China can pressure African states to stop allowing the US to transport equipment through their territory. An example of a US base that may be at risk is N’Djamena, Chad, where the US keeps a small base that is used as a hub for regional operations. N’Djamena is at risk due to it being landlocked and therefore relying on air or land transport through multiple other African states. If the surrounding African states choose to decline passage to US personnel, this may make the US position untenable.
The soft power that the Chinese have accrued through their ‘mask diplomacy’’ is now being translated into providing the Chinese government with more concrete advantages over the US. This is best summarised by General Stephen Townsend, head of the United States Africa Command, who stated in a US government report that the Chinese government has approached many West African states in the hopes of starting an Atlantic naval base. This, in times of conflict (including those scenarios below the threshold of war, between China and NATO states) could place a direct threat on US-Europe trade as well as being used as a base to strike the US East coast and littoral European states. In addition, General Townsend reported that the Chinese government has signed a contract to revive a $10 billion port in Tanzania that many speculate could also be used by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy to house and fix their naval vessels as well as being used as a stopping point on the way to their potential new Atlantic base. This shows that the Chinese government has major plans to expand their military power into Africa and may be taking advantage of their increased popularity to achieve these aims.
Contrary to the doom and gloom facing the US, the post COVID-19 world is looking to be promising for China, with their growing power in Africa that they can use to increase their international standing and material wealth, such as providing even more contracts to Chinese construction firms. It is likely that this will lead to a boom in Sino-African trade. Furthermore, the increased strength in relations places China in an empowered position to further increase their influence on the continent, as many African leaders will recognise the assistance that Beijing gave to them through the pandemic. This feeling was highlighted by former President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, ahead of the 8th Forum on China Africa Cooperation, who described China-Africa relations as a “win-win” and that China’s “helping-hand” can help Africa become self-reliant in healthcare and in the fight against COVID-19. Consequently, it will be easier for China to find countries to host their military installations or to establish preferential trade deals in future, as a means of repaying the gratitude African countries feel towards China.
The post COVID-19 world is going to be uncertain for all states, none more so than for African states. It is likely that there will be a noticeable shift in how many African states will align themselves closer to Beijing, at the expense of their relations with Washington. If Washington aspires to maintain its influence in Africa, then it will need to reform and re-evaluate its strategy in the continent.
- Dados, N. and Connell, R., ‘The Global South’ Sage Journals, 2021
- Joscha Kohlenberg, P. and Godehardt, N., “Locating the ‘South’ in China’s connectivity politics.”, Third World Quarterly, 2022.
- Bräutigam, D. A., and Knack, S, “Foreign Aid, Institutions, and Governance in Sub-Saharan Africa.”, Economic Development and Cultural Change, 2004.
- Lee, S.T., “Vaccine diplomacy: nation branding and China’s COVID-19 soft power play.” Place Branding and Public Diplomacy,
- OECD, “The Belt and Road Initiative in the global trade, investment and finance landscape”, in “OECD Business and Finance Outlook 2018”, OECD Publishing, 2018.