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The US-China great power competition — Ann Landers-style

(AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, left, speaks as South Africa’s Minister of Finance Enoch Godongwana listens, during their meeting at the National Treasury in Pretoria, South Africa, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Yellen took a 10-day tour of Africa, part of a push by the Biden administration to engage more with the world’s second-largest continent.

Ann Landers once offered sage advice for divorced couples in shared social settings. Rather than cause a fuss, America’s agony aunt counseled ex-partners to ignore each other and save the host from picking a side. Yet, the laws of social grace sometimes make for a counterproductive foreign policy. A prime example is the Biden administration’s unwillingness to discuss China’s malign activities in Africa. 

Over the past month, three cabinet members have visited the African continent. This diplomatic blitz would otherwise be an ideal opportunity to deploy the Biden administration’s Africa strategy, which vows to confront China’s assault on transparency and the rules-based international order. However, in their public engagements, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield have assiduously avoided putting Beijing on the agenda. 

The glaring lacuna has been widely reported as an effort to avoid making African nations choose between the United States and China. And it is no doubt informed by the fact that Washington is late to the party. China remains Africa’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade between African nations and China quadrupling that with the U.S. The belated launch of the Biden diplomatic drive in Africa, beginning around the midpoint of the president’s term, also undercuts any sense of urgency. 

This strategy of pursuing deeper diplomatic relations while remaining above the fray of great power competition is nonsensical. Strategic competition with Beijing is the single-largest threat to our economic and national security, coloring every one of our foreign relations. It is true that America does not need a rivalry with China to justify deeper and more productive relations with African countries. But relations with African countries that do not account for the China factor will never be deep. 

The Biden administration’s December promise to mobilize $55 billion for the benefit of African nations provides an illustrative example. Unless the president can retool existing programs with extreme creativity, spending of this scale will most likely need congressional approval. However, continuing support for Ukraine amid its fight for survival has already induced foreign aid fatigue on the Hill. Pouring tens of billions of dollars into African countries that won’t engage with America’s primary foreign policy priority will be a tough sell. 

Making the case for transparency and the rules-based international system is similarly tough when cabinet members refuse to draw a contrast with China’s predatory economic diplomacy. In a press conference in the Zambian capital Lusaka, Yellen vaguely noted that Chinese authorities were stalling debt relief discussions. What the secretary neglected to mention was that opaque Chinese lending to the notoriously corrupt, previous Zambian government precipitated the debt crisis. While Beijing bides its time for greater leverage, Zambia has been reclassified as a low-income country by the World Bank to reflect its ongoing economic woes. Rather than underscore the cruelty of China’s strategy, Yellen threw a PR lifeline by describing debt negotiations with Beijing as constructive

Contrary to the Biden administration’s collective fears, speaking honestly about China does not inherently alienate or strong-arm our partners. Among our most dynamic international relationships, concerns about Beijing’s coercive policies sit parallel with diversified global trade relations. Japan, for example, is set to follow American restrictions on exporting semiconductor technology to deter Beijing’s potentially coercive technological dominance. Meanwhile, the United States is actively emulating India’s restrictions on Chinese apps such as TikTok over privacy and security concerns. And yet, China remains the largest and second-largest trading partner for Japan and India, respectively. 

Ann Landers’ words of wisdom are sound guidance for navigating the politics of the D.C. social circuit. They are not, however, a viable strategy for great power competition. Deeper relations with African governments and their citizens cannot be built upon the coy omission of the United States’ primary foreign policy priority.  

Oliver McPherson-Smith is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and the co-author of “China’s Sharp Power in Africa: A Handbook for Building National Resilience” with Glenn Tiffert. 

Tags Antony Blinken Biden Janet Yellen Linda Thomas-Greenfield Politics of the United States US Africa Strategy US-Africa policy US-China relations US-China tensions

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