As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the international community, the entire world was turned upside down. Despite this chaos however, many developed nations have now begun to move back toward normalcy, deploying vaccines, PPE, and other medical equipment to curb the virus’ effects. Nevertheless, many developing nations are still in the midst of a barely controlled pandemic, creating an opportunity for developed nations to share their knowledge, vaccines, and equipment. However, as China takes advantage of this opportunity to assist Africa, the implicit question is “where is America in Africa’s hour of need?”
Chinese Aid in Africa
China has been interested in Africa for years, and, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has reminded Africa how significant China is to the continent. As Chinese President Xi Jinping remarked to the Prime Minister of Cambodia, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” This statement represents an implicit promise to provide assistance to the African continent during the pandemic. China has certainly lived up to this promise. In March 2021 alone, China pledged roughly half a billion vaccines to 40 African countries, and offered debt relief to numerous African countries. All this and more has contributed to China’s incredibly favorable image among many African nations. However, as these countries drift toward China the question remains, “what is America doing about it?”
The American Success Story in Africa
The answer, contrary to some narratives, is not that America has neglected Africa. Indeed, some of the most successful foreign aid programs ever implemented in Africa have come from the United States. The U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) alone has saved 18 million lives and was primarily implemented in Africa. Additionally, the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), which was implemented in 15 African nations, protects roughly 570 million people annually from malaria and the U.S. has donated $2.4 billion in Ebola assistance to West Africa. By way of comparison, COVID-19 has infected roughly 180 million and killed nearly 4 million worldwide at the time of this article. Thus, the PMI alone annually protects more people in Africa than have contracted COVID-19 globally. When considering the entirety of the U.S.-African relationship on medical emergencies, it is clear that with the exception of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has been at the forefront of many of the health emergencies Africa has faced.
Furthermore, the U.S. response to COVID-19 in Africa, while not quick as China’s, is far from total abandonment with a pledge to donate “….500 million Pfizer doses for distribution through the global COVAX alliance to 92 lower-income countries and the African Union, bringing the first steady supply of mRNA vaccine to the countries that need it most.” Thus, it is not true that America has completely abandoned Africa in its hour of need. Rather, it is that America has not treated Africa with the importance it deserves and has failed to use its historic success in Africa to create the bridge necessary to retain its soft-power influence over Africa into the future.
Differing Priorities Lead to Differing Outcomes
In recent years China has treated Africa as a foreign policy priority. For the past 30 years, China has sent their top foreign diplomat to Africa at the beginning of every year. However in America, as Caleb Slayton, the director for the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School, Africa course, notes, “While African countries have been a primary target of Chinese diplomacy and much-needed infrastructure development, sub-Saharan Africa consistently ranks last in U.S. strategy documents.” Slayton says further that “The region is barely a footnote in most American political theory and grand strategy books from Samuel Huntington to John Mearsheimer to Paul Miller.” Consequently, America often fails to diplomatically engage with Africa on the same level that China does because the continent is not considered a strategic priority. This has allowed China to expand their soft power while preaching a message of peership with African countries–Something that African government crave with the international community and often lack in their engagements with America. Consider this comparison. the last President to visit Africa himself was President Obama who visited the continent four times. In contrast, , President Xi Jinping often chairs the Forum on Chinese and African Cooperation which is held triennially and sends his chief diplomat to Africa at the beginning of every year. Consequently, it is easy for African nations to view China as a peer who is trying to engage with them globally while the United States fades into the background.
Ultimately, China’s involvement in Africa and promises of friendship are not anything extraordinary. Rather, China is simply very good at diplomatically engaging with Africa in ways that forge strong relationships. The United States has historically implemented extremely effective aid programs that have tangibly helped the people of Africa. However, if the U.S. is to retain its soft-power connection to Africa, it is critical that they engage with African nations and show them that they want meaningful partnerships. The United States must begin combatting the narrative that they have forgotten Africa and remind the continent they are indeed a friend in need.