Africa: The First U.S. Casualty of the New Information Warfare Against China
Any state involved in a great-power competition must be careful to avoid at least two critical errors. First, concentrating too much effort against the competitors’ conventional military power and in the process missing their asymmetric or political, economic, and social competitive advantages. Two, ignoring the rest of the world. African countries usually fit into the category of “the rest of the world,” and it is in Africa where the United States has lost the most influence and where China has gained despite the consistent, negative narrative against China’s activities in Africa for the past 15 years.
According to the U.S. strategic narrative on China in Africa, Beijing intends to steal Africa’s resources, secure corrupt business transactions, and pursue low-quality infrastructure projects. American officials argue that China’s political and diplomatic maneuvers yield little good for Africa and ultimately intend to indebt the continent to China’s bidding. This narrative is misleading. It has served to develop a crippling ignorance of the changing nature of information warfare, China’s weapon of choice. The narrative has also masked the successful means by which China has become a partner of almost every country on the continent and garnered their support at the international level. Perhaps worst of all, the focus on China is inattentive to the needs and ambitions of African partners, the key stakeholders in U.S.-Africa partnerships.
Information (psychological) operations can be used to highlight the weaknesses of an opponent, failures of policy, and its political gaffes. The information in a psychological operation is not necessarily incorrect, it is simply one-sided and misses the opponent’s strengths, cultural dimensions, and well-deserved accomplishments. Information operations can go wrong when analysts, strategic thinkers, and military leaders, who are supposed to be using a critical mind for analysis, instead find convenient data points and slogans based on the strategic communications and narratives already in circulation. The practitioners on the ground, taking a hint from the policymakers, thus interpret the atmosphere and shape the environment from within a closed loop of limited information. The narrative of China in Africa is a good example of this condition.
America Should Think Critically — But Not Always Negatively — About Chinese Activities in Africa
As the director from 2012 to 2016 of the Africa Theater Course for Special Forces out of Hurlburt Field, Florida, I engaged with hundreds of military members, government employees, analysts, operators, and practitioners directly engaged on the African continent. Every sidebar conversation or most student interjections on the topic of China maintained a similar skewed perception of China in relation to Africa. China’s development projects were all “broken,” the projects hired mostly Chinese laborers, its merchandise was low-grade, China’s aim was to deplete Africa of its resources, the communications infrastructure was a tool of Chinese control, and all of China’s aid was a debt liability. Any mention of potentially beneficial partnership with China was laced with a political, social, or economic spoiler. This consistent negative narrative aligns to many Department of Defense and Department of State talking points.
The last three years witnessed a double-down in the narrative against China’s economic, military, and political strategies including Vice President Mike Pence’s list of Chinese Communist Party vices. The Pentagon’s National Security Strategy chief architect for Asia, retired Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding, argues that China is engaging in a “stealth war” against the West. Newt Gingrich published a bestseller leveling many of the same points against the Chinese Communist Party’s totalitarian practices the world over. Kelly Magsamen, who worked on former President Barack Obama’s national security staff, while not as hawkish as Spalding or Gingrich, admitted a recent bipartisan criticism of China’s military and political maneuvering. On the one hand, a bipartisan shift in the United States against China grew stronger as China militarized the South China Sea and flatly rejected any neutral mediation over disputed islands. On the other hand, it meant China’s activities in Africa would be considered equally menacing.
Militaries have a hard time adjusting their operations to the specifics of a given region, religion, nationality, ethnicity, or village (education on Islam vs. Islamist extremism is a case in point). At the same time, the United States has increased its focus on great power politics even as some would argue that great-power competition defies a cohesive strategy. The strategic communication machinery that informs the narrative against China is in full swing.
To be sure, China should be held accountable for trade and human rights violations, intellectual property theft, and lack of transparency in its development activities abroad. But what great-power competition consistently misjudges is the important role of the supposed power periphery bystander —in this case, the continent of Africa. The U.S. narrative misjudges the full scope of China’s influence in Africa. Africa’s population, in turn, is misunderstood inside the same narrative.
China Prioritizes Africa, While Washington Does Not
While African countries have been a primary target of Chinese diplomacy and much-needed infrastructure development, sub-Saharan Africa consistently ranks last in U.S. strategy documents. The region is barely a footnote in most American political theory and grand strategy books from Samuel Huntington to John Mearsheimer to Paul Miller. When sub-Saharan Africa is mentioned, it is only to highlight the partnerships with African countries against violent extremism, and in the highest-level strategy documents, sub-Saharan Africa’s future market potential. Africa’s 54 countries (46 of which are considered part of sub-Saharan Africa) may further blur into obscurity as the Pentagon considers shifting the 6,000 U.S. troops building security partnerships in Africa to efforts elsewhere in the great-power competition. The United States isn’t faring well in the African market either, as China-Africa bilateral trade topped $200 billion annually in contrast to U.S.-Africa trade at just under $50 billion, and falling. American media are no help either. In too many cases, media rarely mention the desires of the African partner or the perspective of its population in response to the U.S. partnerships on the continent.
A better narrative on China-Africa relations begins with more complete data and sincere historical cultural study. Very few U.S. service members speak Mandarin, much less speak Mandarin while engaging the African continent. The negative narratives on China in Africa capitalize on generalizations and are misleading in specifics. According to the best data available, there are roughly 200,000 laborers working for Chinese companies in Africa. Roughly 30 percent are in Algeria, Angola has hosted as many as 23 percent in the past compared to its current (2017) 13 percent, and the rest are spread out across any number of China’s 200-plus development projects. Many Chinese migrated to or continued to live in Africa beyond their initial work programs after finding life less competitive compared to living in China. The number of Chinese living or working in Africa exceeds 1 million.
That being said, the labor imbalance is not nearly as bad as the common narrative suggests. Chinese companies in Angola hire the lowest percentage of locals compared to all other sub-Saharan African countries — still at 74 percent. In Ethiopia, at least 90 percent of the workers are local. Ghana is an example where Chinese companies on average hire more locals percentage-wise than any other non-African company.
While expensive infrastructure projects are investment risks, recent scholarly research does not support the charge that China’s development projects are debt traps. There are even a growing number of examples where China has shifted its repayment demands and adjusted its loans to prevent debt crises. China recently opted not to provide financing for one of Kenya’s rail projects, noting the country’s existing debt burden. In a nod to African agency, Ghana recently negotiated a bauxite production infrastructure deal with a Chinese company where the project repayment will be made with the sale revenue of the bauxite at market price and not a strict resource-for-infrastructure financing.
In the general “China in Africa” numbers, the U.S. narrative rarely differentiates between Chinese private companies/citizens and Chinese state-owned enterprises. Chinese entrepreneurs and migrants in Africa are not necessarily as constrained by Chinese Communist Party control as they are inside China. In a recent congressional hearing on U.S. priorities in Africa, a U.S. representative listed, almost one-for-one, the supposed activities through which China is destroying Africa. He stated that China was undermining economies and governments, using extortion to secure deals, hiring few local workers, and stealing Africa’s resources. It was a perfect example of the pervasive narrative against China that has dominated the imaginations of U.S. service members and policymakers. We have become consumer victims of our own narrative.
America Should Pay Attention to What Africans Are Saying About China
In irregular warfare, perhaps the biggest failure of strategic communications is misreading the local populations. The Pentagon assumes that Africans have a generally negative opinion about Chinese influence in Africa, but the opposite is true. Although based on a three-country sample set, it is still revealing to note that the only world region that likes China more than Africa is Russia and Ukraine. Africa has the strongest positive opinion toward the economic influence of China and is the least suspicious of its military and business investments compared to every other world region. In comparing China to the United States, the African sample set claimed that China was more influential economically than the United States, while still being overwhelmingly positive toward the impact of U.S. investment. African countries are smartly not choosing sides, but they are developing a preference.
Of course, China does have a number of weak points in its relations with African countries. Between 2000 and 2017, African countries collectively borrowed $143 billion from China. This represents a large chunk of the total debt of many African countries, including the majority of external debt for Djibouti, Republic of Congo, and Zambia. At the same time, another large chunk of foreign debt is also owed to Western institutions by these same countries. Because many of the Chinese laborers work in short stints in various projects around the continent, they insulate themselves from society, many barely able to greet people in the local language and choosing not to venture outside their quarters. China and its African partners notoriously lack transparency in their development and aid negotiations, which continues to encourage a business culture of corruption. Some deals lack feasibility and long-term economic assessments, leading to low returns on investment. Chinese projects, like oil investments in Chad, have caused serious environmental damage on more than one occasion. Chad took China to task by suspending the Chinese company’s operations and eventually settling on China paying $400 million in fines.
Along with a lack of transparency, China’s leaders and diplomats visiting and serving in Africa have historically exhibited poor strategic communications on their own activities in Africa. However, beginning in 2019, roughly a dozen diplomatic missions and Chinese ambassadors to African nations launched Twitter feeds and began talking, addressing questions in comments sections, and even providing news interviews. Since this communication development is so new, it is yet uncertain how it will unfold. As expected, it is laced with Chinese Communist Party propaganda.
At a time when U.S. diplomatic representation in Africa is at a low, China’s is at an all-time high. China has diplomatic representation in all of sub-Saharan Africa, except Eswatini, while the United States lacks embassies in four countries. But more important to Africa is the fact that China’s top leaders, including the president, make personal Africa engagements a priority. China’s dollar diplomacy may have influenced all but one (Eswatini) African country to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, encouraged support for China in relation to allegations of human rights violations, and as a fully unified group of 54 urged support for China’s U.N. proposal on battling cyber crimes. But China’s success is not solely due to bribery and other monetary enticements.
African countries draw inspiration from China’s rise. Beijing’s success is more profound than any criticism the United States levels against China’s internal social, religious, and political oppression. Fareed Zakaria in Foreign Affairs recently warned against exaggerating the China threat. The warning is less about giving China a pass on its obvious violations of fair trade and human rights abuses and more about framing the narrative. After teaching and directing the Special Operations Africa course, I attended Command and Staff College in Indonesia. In my final thesis, I explored the influence of south-south cooperation and Indonesia and China’s comparative advantages in Africa. China and Indonesia’s narrative against imperialism is strong, and is taught in the context of nonaligned movement principles and a military strategy of defense and nonintervention in others’ internal affairs.
Knowing the pitfalls of communism, analysts make mostly correct observations of the Chinese Communist Party’s power aspirations, and extrapolate many correct points on its foreign policy. However, they begin to make more prejudiced observations especially when reacting to China’s activities outside of Asia. The biggest failure of the prejudice is not seeing when, where, and why Africans might favor Chinese engagement.
Africa Isn’t Buying Washington’s Message on China
In Africa, Beijing has demonstrated that it has a lot to offer. Washington, by contrast, appears to offer only criticism. The U.S. narrative against China-Africa activities misrepresents China’s strategy, underestimates its influence, and downplays what a majority of Africa’s population really thinks about China partnerships and great-power competition. The current facts on the ground already give China impressive influence and access to political, economic, and communication sectors across Africa. Ironically, if China were to respond to America’s demand for more transparency and more carefully crafted development projects and loans, the U.S. narrative would have even less a leg to stand on than it does now. Africa needs to grow its communications networks from ground to space, expand its infrastructure, and expand the technical expertise of its students. These are all needs that the United States is unable to meet on its own (5G networks), increasingly loath to provide, or limited by a development/loan bureaucracy for which few African countries have the patience. Of note, America’s historical competitive advantage in education was also lost to China, as China now hosts more Africans in its universities than the United States does.
When a narrative doesn’t match reality, it runs the risk of losing its influence along with the credibility of its main advocate. The United States is engaging less and less in a competition of action in Africa and more and more in a battle of words. If rhetoric is to be the prime U.S. weapon, the United States should at least do the following six things. One, develop a better narrative that thinks critically about China’s advantages outside of a wholly negative opinion. Two, the United States needs to take advantage of the opportunity in Africa to pursue cooperation with China in order to create a pressure release valve against the growing mutual U.S.-China animosity in East Asia. Three, the United States should engage in more introspection on its past and current failures in Africa engagement. Four, the U.S. narrative must get more specific by country and ethnic group as opposed to misusing an overgeneralized perspective of “Africa” (something a short essay like this one fails to do). Five, African media and institutions need to be encouraged to voice their perceptions more strongly without twisting their words to fit the great power competition narrative. Finally, the United States should continue to watch closely how China adapts to its security challenges, expands its military footprint (United Nations, private security, military basing), and adjusts to Africa’s economic and development environment. China’s activities will shift, and America’s strategic communication should maneuver accordingly.
Strategic communications, especially in relation to China, need to be based on a complete understanding of the facts. They also should be grounded in a clear-eyed analysis of a rival’s military, political, economic, and social strengths and weaknesses. China has a knack for working much faster than most analysts predict, especially in terms of military technology and advancement. China has been known to course-correct and respond to Africa’s growing demands. If the United States, in the name of great power competition, continues to pursue information warfare ineptly and overlook “peripheral” regions of the world, it risks losing influence and credibility in Africa.
Caleb Slayton is an Asia region accredited foreign area officer who accumulatively lived and worked in east, central, and west Africa for 12 years prior to serving as the director for the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School, Africa course. Slayton has a master’s in security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School and writes on military partnerships, religious dynamics, and international relations theory. This essay was born out of class work submitted while completing Air War College.
The content and opinions in this paper are those of the author and do not represent the opinions of the United States Air Force, Air War College, or the United States military.
Image: Government of South Africa