This is true not only in African countries with "dictatorial or authoritarian regimes but in fact China's […] commonly shared roots with African nations […] has struck a chord even with those democratically elected leaders in Africa," allowing China access to even those countries that might at first glance appear to natural allies to the United States due to their democratic form of government.
Thus, Africa's colonial past has simultaneously meant that China has a natural cultural, historical, and ideological connection to the continent while any action by the United States is viewed with a degree of inherent suspicion and reluctance; the difficulty the United States has faced in developing close strategic and economic partnerships in the region is evidenced by the fact that it has yet to find a suitable host nation for AFRICOM, the U.S. military command on the continent, even amongst putative allies, at the same time that China has managed to secure crucial deals regarding the extraction of raw materials in order to support its growing economy and military expansion.
China has used its image as a fellow anti-colonialist developing nation in order to secure important economic and military deals for itself, positioning itself as less of a donor or benefactor and more of an equal partner, even if that equality is more rhetorical than practical.
This is in stark contrast to the kind of aid or development offered by the West, which has almost exclusively been given within the context of humanitarian aid or intervention, framed as a wealthy, Western nation magnanimously providing assistance to the poor, seemingly-failing states of the global South. As a result, China is able to use "the pillars of its foreign policy, notably unconditional respect for state sovereignty and its corollary, non-interference," in order to secure alliances for itself, even as it engages in behavior that ultimately undermines the sovereignty of African nations by making them dependent on Chinese investment, development, and military aid.
Of course, this form of hypocrisy or creative rhetoric is not substantively different from the United States' expressed commitment to democracy even as it props up dictators in the Middle East, and once again, the congruency between the two policies demonstrates how although China's rhetoric may differ, its methods are largely the same as the United States, with the only difference being those cultural and historical factors that allow one country to have a natural advantage in a particular region.
The obstacles facing the United States as it attempts to mitigate China's growing influence are substantial, because the lingering effects of Western colonialism and the ostensibly natural cultural, historical, and ideological connection between China and Africa mean that the United States must overcome centuries of ill-will as well as a naturally advantaged rival in order to maintain any sort of economic and military dominance in the region. However, these obstacles are not insurmountable, and recognizing them is actually the first step towards overcoming them. For example, recognizing that China's policy in Africa is strikingly similar to the United States' policy in the Middle East allows one to demystify China's rapid success, and thus move past the kind of myopic attitude that has characterized Western evaluations of China's behavior since at least 1949. Instead of imagining that China represents some kind of subversive, creeping threat, one must begin from the position that China's actions in Africa are simply the reiteration of a strategy that has been deployed elsewhere by the United States. This allows one to focus on those specific cultural and historical factors that benefit China and hinder the United States independent of the particular strategy of aid in return for economic and military favors.
The United States is never going to be able to erase the effects of colonialism, but it can take some important steps to ensure that its activities in Africa do not unnecessarily invoke the specter of colonialism and thus turn public and elite opinion against them. For example, by noting the success of China's focus on "partnerships" rather than "aid," the United States could gradually transition its foreign aid projects into economic development projects. In practical terms the change would actually be insignificant, because much of the United States' involvement in Africa is already geared towards economic development as a means of stabilizing the region, but in rhetorical terms, it would go a long way towards reframing U.S. intervention in the region, because it would reduce the perception that the United States views itself as somehow inherently superior to the African nations it seeks to ally itself with.
In turn, this rhetorical shift would likely make an increased U.S. military presence more palatable to friendly African nations, because it would appear as less of an occupying force and as more of a friendly entity, present only with the blessing of the host nations; the U.S. Naval Base in Bahrain is a prime example of how more equitable-sounding partnerships can precipitate and perpetuate a U.S. military presence in strategically important areas. Altering the rhetoric surrounding the presence of the U.S. military in Africa is especially important, because the central African opposition to AFRICOM, as outlined by the Head of the African Security Analysis Program and the Institute for Security Studies, is born out of the impression that "Africans were never consulted during the conceptualization of AFRICOM [but that] rather, AFRICOM was announced and has been presented as a fait accompli."
In other words, the opposition is not necessarily to a substantial U.S. military presence, but rather the way in which that presence has been framed and presented to the African population.
While "Chinese and American influence in Africa is not a zero-sum game in the near-term," as the continent becomes increasingly developed, its natural resources are extracted, and its population grows, influence and clout in the region will simultaneously become increasingly valuable harder to attain without a preexisting foothold.
China effectively has at least a fifty-year head-start on the United States, because it made efforts to support independence and anti-colonial movements in Africa almost immediately after it underwent its own political revolution. China's influence in Africa has only increased over the subsequent decades, because it has presented itself as a natural ally to African nations wary of Western efforts to control or colonize the continent.
China's success on the African continent is not nearly as mystifying or impressive as many foreign policy analysts would have one believe, because strategically China has essentially just followed the United States' lead by mimicking the latter's policy in the Middle East over the last half-century. Recognizing this allows one to examine China's Africa policy from a more objective position in order to not only understand what has made China so successful, but precisely what has kept the United States from effectively maintaining economic and military dominance in the region going forward. Revealing the lingering cultural and historical factors that have benefitted China while hindering the United States subsequently suggests some relatively straightforward methods by which the United States might mitigate China's growing influence while securing its own economic and military interests. In order to mitigate China's growing influence on the African continent, the United States must engage in a concerted effort to rhetorically distinguish its own actions from the region's colonial past, and in particular attempt to reframe its aid and intervention as equal partnerships, rather than strictly humanitarian assistance or pitying contributions, because even if this reframing is only rhetorical, it would go a long way towards securing American interests in the region. Reframing economic and humanitarian intervention as equal partnership will subsequently increase the likelihood that the United States can increase and maintain its military presence in the region, because it will no longer be regarded as a potential occupying force and will instead be viewed as an example of friendly strategic support. Africa is increasingly becoming one of the most important regions on the globe, and only by making these changes can the United States hope to maintain its economic and military dominance over the course of the twenty-first century.
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