LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) – China and the United States’ global Cold War has an increasingly important theatre: Africa. On different metrics Uncle Sam and the Middle Kingdom can claim to be the continent’s biggest player. In 2019, China will pull ahead.
The United States has $57 billion of FDI stock, United Nations data shows, narrowly ahead of Britain and France. But China had cumulative investment worth $40 billion in 2016, against just $16 billion in 2011.
In trade terms it has been Africa’s main partner for a decade. Its sum of exports and imports in 2017 was $170 billion, over three times America’s. Washington has noticed. In mid-2018, as Donald Trump launched his trade war, the U.S. president recognised China’s threat by doubling development finance to $60 billion – a far cry from Trump’s previous dismissal of unspecified African countries as “shitholes”.
But it’s not certain to work. After heavy Chinese borrowing by Angola, Ethiopia and Zambia, African governments are wary of mega-projects financed by “debt-trap diplomacy”, be they American- or Chinese-enabled.
China has already offered to match the U.S. commitment. It may find cash easier to deploy given Washington’s checks and balances and corruption concerns. Chinese and U.S. military bases sitting next to each in Djibouti are one potential flashpoint, but in 2019 the hostilities will mainly play out in two sectors.