China Moves in as Trump Expresses Frustration with African Countries

Spearhead Analysis – 06.02.2018

By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

On January 25 US President Donald Trump sent a letter to several African leaders after he made an insulting comment directed at Haiti, El Salvador, and various African nations. At a White House meeting on immigration Trump reportedly asked, “Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?”

The president’s incendiary comments about immigration from countries he considers undesirable led to several news outlets debating the possibility of a public apology. Such harsh words directed at a major ally are rare. US diplomats have been scrambling for weeks to contain the fallout.  

Trump denied using the terms quoted in the media, claiming that while the language he had used was tough, the words circulating in the news were in fact not his. In his letter, which was addressed to 55 continental leaders, Trump reportedly claimed, he “deeply respects” the people of Africa. 

Regardless, the incident at the DACA meeting stirred debate within several deeply disappointed and upset African nations.African ambassadors at the United Nations (UN) met with the US ambassador to the UN about the reported remarks. As news of this incident was released, Botswana, Senegal, South Africa, and Ghana summoned US diplomats to express concerns over the issue. South Africa launched a rare diplomatic protest to the US soon after.   

For Beijing, however, Trump’s remarks could not have come at a better time.

Beijing was quick to act; the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi was sent to four African countries: Rwanda, Angola, Gabon, and São Tomé and Príncipe, where Wang invited all to join the BRI.

Wang emphasized how “China has already started to explore cooperation opportunities with a number of African countries, especially those on the eastern coast of Africa and has achieved positive progress in this regard.” He stressed on how “the African continent was part of the ancient maritime silk road.”

In contrast to Trump’s tone, Wang was a lot more encouraging of enhancing bilateral ties with Africa. “As a natural and historical extension of the Belt and Road, Africa should not be absent in the co-building process, nor should it be left behind in the mutual development of China and the world,” Wang said.

China is set to meet with representatives from various African countries later this year at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The FOCAC consists of a number of ministerial conferences that are held between the two countries every three years. The FOCAC has recently also been upgraded to a summit, according to China’s Foreign Ministry.

Wang deemed the FOCAC an “important channel for conducting collective dialogue and deepening mutually beneficial cooperation between China and Africa”, since it is the largest and most active platform for the 29 member countries of the South-South cooperation.

“An array of action plans will be worked out in terms of commerce, security, culture and society between China and African countries during the Summit on China-Africa Cooperation in 2018,” said Wang.

At the latest summit held in 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa, China revealed a $60 billion package plan aimed at forwarding China-African cooperation.

Beijing has been working to include Africa into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) for some time now. Trump’s comments will only push African countries closer to China, inevitably also boosting China’s BRI initiative’s foreign policy aims and objectives. 

The BRI, which is essentially the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship foreign policy, stands in stark contrast to Trump’s withdrawal doctrine. Trump’s calls to build a wall, the rhetoric condemning immigrants and Trump’s policies, all make it increasingly difficult to take Washington’s commitment to the region seriously. Now with Trump’s most recent “racist and xenophobic comments”, and Beijing’s moves in the African continent, the differences in approach between the two powers have become even more defined.

Xi Jinping has painted the BRI as “economic globalization that is open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial to all.” Beijing, with its ambitious BRI proposes to connect markets all over Asia, Europe and Africa with China through infrastructural development. China has further extended efforts to invite the World Bank and several other international institutions in meetings to discuss ways of accommodating the needs of developing and developed nations alike.

With little competition from the US, China’s BRI will likely do well in not only Africa but other regions as well. Washington has been withdrawing from Latin America, for instance, for some time now. As far as the future of Sino-Latin American relations is concerned, China is exploring new markets and pushing forth its expansionist model there too. China has invested in its allies in the region, using infrastructure as an effective diplomatic tool. Beijing has also expanded its friendships in the region by inviting several South American countries to join the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank. With projects like the proposed 19,000-kilometer, trans-Pacific fiber-optic internet cable from China to Chile, for example, China is working to extend the BRI to the Americas, thereby enhancing regional connectivity with the BRI even further.