From the South China Sea to the Middle East, the US is losing its status as an unrivalled superpower. In few places is this loss of influence so apparent as in Africa, where Beijing senses a strategic opportunity and where Washington is increasingly viewed as a fickle — even absentee — ally.
If there is a mirror image of Donald Trump’s America First policy, it is to be found in the world’s poorest continent. You could call it Africa Last.
African leaders have mostly played down US disengagement. They have shrugged off Mr Trump’s lavatorial comparisons and his invention of the 55th African state of “Nambia”. They have ignored snubs, such as when Mr Trump walked out of the working session on Africa at last year’s G20 in Hamburg. But they cannot help noticing the Africa-shaped hole where Washington’s African strategy should be.
The US, says Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese telecoms billionaire and a champion of better governance, has lost its authority to “as the leader of the liberal world and backbone of the international order”.
Dictators are increasingly isolated in Africa, as the recent ousting of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe confirms. But leaders sense waning US commitment to African democracy, says Mr Ibrahim, and those autocrats who remain gain succour from Mr Trump’s apparent admiration of strongmen, from Russia to the Philippines.
America’s shrinking influence in Africa, the second-largest continent geographically and epicentre of a gathering population explosion, did not begin under Mr Trump. The commitment of Barack Obama, his Kenyan roots notwithstanding, fell short of that shown by George W Bush, whose conversion to African causes — particularly the fight against HIV — made him a hero on the continent.
The sense of US withdrawal has accelerated with this administration. Mr Trump’s threat to cut the US aid budget by 30 per cent signals a massive scaling down of its commitment to a health and poverty-reduction agenda that has enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington for decades. A year into the US president’s administration, he is still without an ambassador to Pretoria or an assistant secretary of state for Africa. “There is no high policy, at least none that I can find,” says John Campbell, former US ambassador to Nigeria and senior fellow for Africa policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Why should this matter? Africa accounts for only 3 per cent of global trade, and the US has few of the colonial ties that have preserved commercial and diplomatic interest in the continent from Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium.
The US business relationship with Africa is almost exclusively extractive. Oil majors, such as Chevron and ExxonMobil, secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s old company, are the biggest investors. The likes of GE, Google and Citigroup are among a handful of non-extractives making any sort of commercial bet on a continent that, though poor, contains several of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
As Mr Campbell points out, there are non-commercial reasons to think harder about Africa. By 2050, the number of Africans will have doubled to more than 2bn and may double again by the end of the century. Within a generation or so, Nigeria is expected to surpass the US to become the world’s third-most populous country.
The danger is that Africa will become home to a restless, jobless urban youth tempted to join the swelling flow of emigrants to Europe or prone to radicalisation at home. The persistence of Africa-based militant Islamist groups, from Boko Haram in north-east Nigeria to al-Shabaab in Somalia, is a worrying omen.
As the US presence fades, that of China — and, to a lesser extent, of India, Turkey and Morocco — has grown. China’s influence is everywhere: in roads, rail, telecoms, infrastructure and in Djibouti, in a naval base. Of the UN Security Council’s five members, China has the most peacekeepers in Africa. When Zimbabwe’s generals were preparing to ease Mr Mugabe from power, it was Beijing, not Washington, they tipped off first.
Accusations surfaced last month that Beijing had been routinely bugging the $200m headquarters of the African Union it built in Addis Ababa. The muted African response suggested there were no secrets between friends.
“I don’t think there is anything done here that we would not like people to know,” Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda and chair of the African Union, told reporters. At least, he seemed to be saying, the Chinese were listening.