The triadic relationship between Africa, China and the United States has been affected by the US-led war on terrorism that was launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York. As a 2006 article in the Journal of Comparative Strategy put it, “while the countries of the greater Middle East have figured most prominently as theatres of operations in that conflict, other areas of the globe, including Africa, have likewise experienced a shift in U.S. patterns of engagement.”
A large part of the alienation of the US was due to the launch of the war on terror in the manner that it was; as a development which (re-)associated the US, from President George W. Bush onwards, with insulated (and sometimes questioned and unpopular) priorities, a disregard for international institutions and laws, an ill-received bellicosity against African states and historic African allies such as Palestine, who had been bound to the continent by the Afro-Arab Bandung Conference in the early 1950s, and above all, political “interference” and regime-change in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and attempts in Sudan and Syria – all factors which cemented its alienation and saw a vacuum that came to be filled by China who, while fighting its own war on terror in Tibet and Xinjiang, has averted playing it out on the international arena, has shunned interference and has thereby bolstered its soft power appeal among African countries.
The war on terror was from the outset very unpopular within the African continent. To begin with, only five African states joined in the so-called “coalition of the willing” which cooperated with the US in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Many African leaders, including South African Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela (the elderly statesman had said that President Bush “is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust” by invading Iraq and had planned a trip with the British billionaire, Richard Branson, to Iraq to negotiate with Saddam Hussein himself but could not do as the bombing began before he could) Zimbabwean President Mugabe, were quite opposed to the manner in which the war on terror took shape. There are perhaps two main causes of this opposition. Having come out of the Cold War just over a decade before, many African countries were once again placed under the threat of becoming proxies in a war that was not of their doing. The once more politicised international arena would lead to there being a moral drainage for the US-led effort. Furthermore, the war on terror, being concomitant with tied aid, once more brought into the realm of possibility the likelihood of being subjected to “conditions” in exchange for cooperation. To that effect, al-Shabaab, the Somali branch of al-Qaeda formed in 2006, gained much of its fame for its responsibility for the 2013 attack in Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya in which 67 people were killed and 175 were injured by gunfire. The act was in vengeance for Kenyan deployment of its troops against the fundamentalist militia in Somalia a few weeks before; allegedly, Kenya had been coerced into doing so under the threat of taking away USAID on which that country is quite reliant. The war on terror has also undermined democratic forces on the continent as it has seen the US support and bolster undemocratic regimes in Djibouti, and poor human rights regimes such as Uganda.
Secondly, the war on terror cannot be divorced from the Palestine question, over which many African countries are opposed to what they perceive to be a suppression of Palestinians by the Israeli government, with US support. Going back to the famous Afro-Arab-Asian Bandung Conference of the early 1950s, many African countries still pledge solidarity to Palestine and see the “war on terror” as averting the real issue, the future of Palestine, which many “terrorists” have as their cause, and are thereby deemed “freedom fighters”, and these are therefore portrayed in much the same way as the anti-colonial independence fighters of Africa were during their own struggles against domination.
In the Pew Global Attitudes survey for 2015, African respondents had a significantly more positive view of China (70% with a favourable view) than respondents in other regions such as Europe (41%), Asia (57%), or Latin America (57%). This likely reflects the positive impact of China’s engagement on African growth. In Nigeria and Kenya, the two largest economies in their respective sub-regions, China attained 89 percent and 75 percent of respondents hold positive views of China, respectively.
China’s state owned enterprises, due to being able to take risks that entirely privately-owned US companies could never take, has been able to work with African countries in times when they are deemed liabilities due to the war on terror narrative. For example, China has shown both willingness and an ability to invest in Africa when the western financiers have been averse towards Africa; such was the case in Nigeria’s oil sector, as well as Sudan who upon being demarcated as a “terrorist sponsor” experienced substantial divesting by the US and the West at large.
At the core of Africa’s demands towards the investing world has been the principle of non-interference. In light of its previous experiences under the structural adjustment programmes that were introduced by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Africa has sought to attract investors and development partners who, while investing heavily in its infrastructure, business and social projects, would also be willing to take a hands-off approach towards questions of governance, policy and the expenditure of the investments. The salience of this can perhaps be best demonstrated by the increasing unpopularity faced by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank seen in Africa (and elsewhere). Against this backdrop, African countries have increasingly looked towards China as an alternative source of investment as well as aid due to its ostensible policy of non-interference in the domestic policies and politics of receptor states. The coinciding of the rise in Chinese investment in Africa with the launching of the war on terror by the US cannot be overlooked as a factor.
We cannot exclude the extent to which other factors have resulted in a pro-China stance within the African context. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which was established in the year 2000 and has been a platform for channelling Chinese investment and aid onto the continent (including commitments to train African scientists, agriculturalist and for write-offs of debt for some of the poorest African states, and no less than $5-billion in aid pledged since 2009), could be one such alternative candidate explanation. As many scholars would argue, the Forum has been the engine through which Africa and China have been brought close together. Nevertheless, this explanation does not disprove the argument put forth in here and in fact it could be argued that it is concomitant with it as the Forum could be said to have provided a platform through which the surpassing of the US took place. In the end, Africa’s eastward turn may have not been caused by the US-led war on terror, but it can in the least be stated with fairness that it was a contributing factor in that regard. Indeed, the actions and decisions of states, institutions and other international actors tend to evolve gradually over time and not at once, exponentially or instantaneously.