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The "Global South"

Motives for Chinese-American competition for influence in West Africa

19 February 2024

As part of a 34-year diplomatic tradition, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on an African tour from January 13 to 18, 2024, that included Egypt and Tunisia, Côte d'Ivoire and Togo. This was followed, about three days later, by a similar tour by his American counterpart, Antony Blinken, from January 21 to 26 - his fourth trip to the African continent since assuming office, during which he visited four countries: Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria, and Angola. The United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, also visited three other West African countries: Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. This underscores Beijing and Washington's increasing competition for influence and supremacy in a region of strategic importance to both countries.

Different Motives

Several motives and reasons have recently surfaced, explaining Beijing and Washington's renewed focus on West Africa and the African Sahel, prompting them to expand their regional presence and influence. This can be outlined as follows:

1. Restricting the Strategic Footprint of Competing Powers: 

The enduring presence of both China and the United States in West Africa and the Sahel region spans several decades, highlighting their growing interest in this geostrategic area due to its proximity to numerous interconnected interests. Consequently, the eagerness of Beijing and Washington to expand their presence in the region can be attributed to their desire to curtail or diminish the influence of other rival powers while seeking to assert their control and influence over the area. This ambition is intricately tied to the broader aspirations of both China and the United States to assert their dominance and influence across multiple regions as part of their global leadership and hegemony competition.

A key objective behind Secretary Blinken's recent visit to West Africa was to address China's expanding influence on the continent. Beijing stands as Africa's largest trading partner, with bilateral trade amounting to USD 282.1 billion in 2023. Alongside countering China's sway in West Africa, the United States is also grappling with the escalating presence of Russia in the region, which has notably surged in recent times. This development has sparked concerns in Washington, especially in light of military coups in certain regional countries and the new administration's efforts to strengthen ties with Russia. The expanding Chinese and Russian presence in Africa is viewed by Washington as a direct challenge to its influence on the continent.

2. Addressing the void followed by France's withdrawal from the region: 

Recent developments in the West Africa and Sahel region have seen a notable absence of military presence following Paris' decision to withdraw from the region in response to a series of military coups and subsequent ousting of French forces by new ruling regimes. This shift has altered regional power dynamics, prompting efforts to fill the void left by France's departure.

In this context, the United States and, to a lesser extent, China are vying to assume the role previously held by France in these nations. Washington seeks to bolster its regional influence by engaging in arms sales with these countries and enhancing military and security cooperation. Meanwhile, Beijing perceives the growing anti-Paris sentiment in many West African countries as an opportunity to expand its regional economic footprint.

3. A vast economic potential: 

West African countries boast a wealth of diverse economic resources, including uranium, gold, oil, and gas, collectively representing 40% of global gold reserves and 70% of global production. Moreover, they contribute to 9% of total global oil reserves. With a consumer market comprising 350 million people, the region is recognized as a promising destination for foreign investment and a hub for major multinational corporations. Given its substantial economic potential and resource richness, West Africa is deemed crucial to the economies of both China and the United States, offering opportunities for mutual benefit to Beijing and Washington by utilizing these resources.

4. Growing political and security turmoil: 

The West African region has been beset by various sources of insecurity and instability, prominently marked by security upheavals and the pervasive presence of armed jihadist factions. Moreover, certain countries in the region have been subjected to a succession of military coups, including Mali in 2020, Burkina Faso in 2022, and Niger in 2023.

In light of these developments, China perceives the political shifts and volatility in West Africa as detrimental to regional security and stability, thereby posing significant challenges to the development aspirations of countries such as Togo and Côte d'Ivoire. Conversely, the United States, as articulated by the Secretary of State in an interview with Radio France Internationale, condemns the engagement of the Russian Wagner Group by various African nations, citing heightened instability, escalating violence and terrorism, and exploitation of resources as consequences.

5. Exploring alternative trade routes: 

China has recently expressed great concern about the threats to international maritime trade routes, particularly since Houthis in Yemen began attacking commercial ships sailing through the Red Sea, affecting Chinese trade with countries worldwide. As a result of the West African region's strategic placement on international trade routes and corridors, particularly its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, China has renewed its interest in this vital region, which explains Wang Yi's visit to Côte d'Ivoire. 

On the other hand, it looked remarkable that the four countries selected for the US Secretary of State's visit to West Africa all face the Atlantic Ocean and have vast beaches. Angola, Côte d'Ivoire, and Nigeria are all located on the Gulf of Guinea, a critical corridor for international maritime trade. Angola also has special significance for the United States because of its involvement in the Lobito Corridor project, which connects landlocked Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, rich in mineral resources, all the way to the Angolan port of Lobito, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.

Multiple Mechanisms

In the context of Beijing and Washington's rivalry to bolster their influence in West Africa and the Sahel, both nations employ a diverse array of methods and tactics to pursue their regional objectives and interests, as outlined below:

1. Political endorsement of ruling regimes: 

The United States strives to demonstrate its support for the ruling regimes of these nations. During his recent visit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized Beijing's backing for Togo and Côte d'Ivoire. The Chinese diplomat underscored his country's solidarity with Togo in its endeavors to defend its sovereignty, security, and development, underscoring the mutual desire of the two nations to deepen their bilateral relations, which have spanned five decades.

Similarly, the United States Secretary of State commended Côte d'Ivoire's response to Niger's coup in the preceding year, expressing commitment to "pursuing security collectively" by investing in economic initiatives to counter extremism in the northern regions bordering Mali and Burkina Faso. Secretary Blinken positioned his nation as Africa's foremost economic, developmental, and security partner amid regional and global crises. Furthermore, during his visit to Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, he reiterated Washington's dedication to "strengthening, broadening, and intensifying" its collaborations with Africa, portraying Cape Verde as a bastion of stability and a significant voice in the western region of the continent.

2. Deepening trade and economic cooperation: 

Central to China's engagement with the West African region is its focus on economic and trade relations, employing a variety of strategies and mechanisms to deepen these ties. Beijing seeks to bolster economic bonds with these nations through bilateral trade, investment initiatives, and participation in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.

In this vein, China leverages the Belt and Road Initiative as a platform for economic cooperation with West African nations. Notably, the China Harbour Engineering Company spearheaded the expansion of the port of Abidjan in Côte d'Ivoire into a deep-water facility. This port stands among three key ports in the West African region that China has assisted in upgrading, alongside Kribi in Cameroon and Lekki in Nigeria.

Côte d'Ivoire holds strategic importance as a gateway for China in West Africa, particularly following Chinese enterprises' involvement in modernizing Abidjan's port and the inauguration of new maritime terminals in March 2022. Wang Yi's visit to Côte d'Ivoire signified a significant stride in the economic partnership between the two nations, given China's financing of numerous large-scale infrastructure projects in the country. Furthermore, China has emerged as Côte d'Ivoire's largest trading partner, with trade volume between the two countries doubling from USD 1.85 billion in 2017 to USD 4.46 billion by 2022. Additionally, an agreement was reached to supply Yamoussoukro with an electric bus contract.

Concurrently, the United States collaborates with Cape Verde on maritime interdiction and law enforcement matters. Secretary Blinken's tour of the capital's port, Praia, coincided with Washington's allocation of a USD 150 million grant to Cape Verde, spanning port expansion, road repairs, and the enhancement of water and sanitation facilities.

3. Bolstering security and military cooperation: 

China urges the international community to take a more proactive stance in fostering security and stability in West Africa and the Sahel region. On January 11, 2024, Dai Bing, China's deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, emphasized the importance of achieving peace and stability, countering terrorism, and promoting economic development in the countries of West Africa and the Sahel region. China also seeks to bolster its military and naval presence in the West African region through the deployment of its naval fleets. In collaboration with the Nigerian Navy, a Chinese naval fleet led by the destroyer Nanning arrived in Nigeria on July 2, 2023, to address challenges to maritime security and preserve stability in the Gulf of Guinea.

Moreover, China and Côte d'Ivoire have established security cooperation, exemplified by signing an agreement by the Ivorian Armed Forces with their Chinese counterparts in 2023 to import 50 armed vehicles.

In parallel, the United States is endeavoring to enhance its regional influence by establishing military bases. Washington aims to strengthen its relations with stable West African nations, with the intention of establishing new military bases to reduce reliance on the Agadez base in northern Niger, established at a cost of USD 100 million and hosting 1,000 American soldiers. This initiative gains particular significance in light of the instability plaguing Niger following recent military coups.

During the latest visit, the US Secretary of State pledged to enhance collaboration with Côte d'Ivoire in security force training. As part of its strategy to address instability, Washington committed an additional USD 45 million to combat conflicts and stabilize the Sahel region, bringing the total investment under the initiative initiated a year ago to nearly USD 300 million.

Competition Ramifications

The intensifying rivalry between China and the United States in West Africa and the Sahel region is poised to yield a plethora of consequences, with the most salient ones outlined below:

1. Increasing Chinese presence: 

A notable upsurge in Chinese engagement in the West African region is anticipated, particularly in economic, trade, and investment domains—a focal point in China's relations with these nations. China's imperative for oil propels this trajectory, as do the region's abundant mineral resources and receptiveness to Chinese investment. Over recent decades, Beijing has made substantial inroads in Africa, channeling investments into infrastructure development and natural resource extraction. Surpassing the United States as Africa's largest investor, China's comprehensive national strength is projected to burgeon, augmenting its sway in Africa throughout the twenty-first century. Despite concerted American efforts to contain China's expansion in Africa, Washington's strategic apprehensions about China remain evident.

2. Diminishing US presence: 

Despite the recent tour of West Africa and the Sahel region by the US Secretary of State, showcasing a renewed American interest in African affairs, a tangible trend is emerging wherein the United States is increasingly preoccupied with escalating crises in the Middle East. These include the Israeli conflict in the Gaza Strip, the volatile situation in the Red Sea, and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Furthermore, President Joe Biden's failure to fulfill his pledge to visit Africa last year signals a waning US commitment to addressing issues in West Africa and the Sahel region. Consequently, this diminishes America's capacity to foster security and stability in West Africa, paving the way for heightened Chinese and Russian influence to take root in the region.

3. The issue of balance between Beijing and Washington: 

The competition between China and the United States for leadership and influence in West Africa compels countries to delicately balance their relationships with both powers, avoiding alignment with either side. Regional countries are acutely aware of this dynamic, precisely navigating their engagements to safeguard their national interests, irrespective of the strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington. This trend is underscored by the gradual shedding of the continent's "subaltern" status, expanding options for development financing, and a bolstered bargaining power, particularly with the emergence of the "Global South" bloc.

Several factors have contributed to the heightened involvement of China and the United States in West Africa and the Sahel region in recent years. This reflects the resurgent competition between the two superpowers for influence and hegemony in this strategically vital region of Africa and the global arena. Each party leverages diplomatic, economic, and military tools to maximize its gains, seeking to bolster its strength at the expense of the other. However, prevailing realities indicate China's assertive strides towards solidifying its presence in West Africa and the Sahel through economic and trade diplomacy. Meanwhile, waning US interest in the region's crises, despite visits by senior diplomats, stems from Washington's prioritization of other regional and global crises over Africa. This creates an opening for Beijing to expand its influence on the continent, spearheading the so-called "Global South."