The Eagle and the Dragon in Africa: Comparing Data on Chinese and American Influence


Pundits and past U.S. policymakers may have gotten it wrong: With its investments in Africa, ranging from infrastructure to student exchanges, China is not canceling the influence of the United States on the continent. What China has done through its investments has been to increase its influence in Africa significantly, to the point that it moderately exceeds that of the United States. But new research indicates that, with careful attention to priorities and targeted programmatic investments, the United States can remain a formidable force on the continent. This observation could be crucial to informing a new U.S. policy toward Africa that, while taking China into account, is focused on the countries of the continent.

In the media, China’s focus on Africa is often portrayed as an ambitious strategy aimed at displacing a waning United States in an African version of the “Great Game.” Many observers view China as seeking to achieve influence and access with governments, institutions, and people on the basis of its liberal lending practices and the construction of roads, railroads, and other infrastructure projects. In October 2019, Forbes characterized China’s infrastructure investments in Africa as a “winning model” that was “helping China to beat Europe and America.” The same point of view seemed reflected in past U.S. government positions. In a speech on Dec. 13, 2018, when then-National Security Advisor John Bolton presented the strategy of the United States toward Africa, he mentioned China 14 times. Bolton made three key assertions about China. First, he said that China is deliberately and aggressively targeting its investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States. Second, he said, “China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands. Its investment ventures are riddled with corruption.” Third, he said that Chinese activities threaten African independence, disadvantage U.S. companies, and pose a “significant threat to U.S. national security interests.” Even in the context of growing global competition between the United States and China, Bolton’s China-centric approach to Africa policy was unusual.



Other sources provide a more detailed and textured picture of the competitive relationship between China and the United States in Africa, and undermine the widespread impression that the money China spends on infrastructure projects is the reason for its influence in Africa. For example, Afrobarometer, the authoritative African survey organization, reported in surveys conducted in 2019 and 2020 in 18 African countries that most respondents placed China and the United States in roughly equivalent positions as external influencers. Asked about their perceptions of the economic and political influence of various countries, 59 percent of African respondents viewed China somewhat, or very, positively and 15 percent viewed China somewhat or very negatively. The comparable numbers for the United States were similar: 58 percent and 13 percent. The same study reported that, when respondents in 18 African countries were asked to name the best national model for development, 32 percent cited the United States and 23 percent named China. Interestingly, a similar Afrobarometer study of 36 countries in 2014–2015 reported that 30 percent of Africans viewed the United States as the best model for national development as against the 24 percent who viewed China that way. Considering the margin of statistical error, the studies suggest no, or minimal, change between 2015 and 2020.

International relations scholars in China anticipate that Africans’ positive perceptions of the United States may continue to increase during the presidency of Joe Biden. Qian Liwei, the deputy director of the Africa Research Institute at the Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations, asserts that many African national leaders, media, and scholars expect that the Biden administration will promote trade and closer cooperation. Yet, Africa will continue to be important to China for a number of reasons, including furnishing resources to fuel China’s growing economy, providing a market for Chinese products, and partnering to “build a community with a shared future.” Leaders of the People’s Republic of China approach China’s relations with the countries of Africa both bilaterally and through multilateral coordination mechanisms such as the Forum on Chinese and African Cooperation to develop relations that “increase understanding, expand consensus, strengthen friendship and promote cooperation.” China’s signature foreign development scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative, funds infrastructure development around the world and, in the case of Africa, is intended to jointly promote “high quality development.” The panoply of China’s diplomatic, economic, development, and security efforts will likely ensure that it will continue to possess substantial channels of influence on the continent.

With both the policy context and the data in mind, our research team sought to devise a method to compare the potential influence of the United States and China in key African countries. Looking at a sample of four African countries selected as representative of East and West Africa, we reached the conclusion that both China and the United States possess moderate potential influence in all the African countries studied, with China’s potential influence only narrowly exceeding that of the United States. Importantly, the popular impression that Chinese influence rests mainly on its policies of liberal lending and investment in infrastructure proved only partly true. For example, Chinese influence, in some instances, seemed to rest more on people-to-people factors than on debt, trade, or investment. The results suggest that, with modest investments, particularly in the trade and cultural and information areas, U.S. potential influence could be enhanced. Extending the study methodology to a broader set of African countries might be helpful in formulating a constructive and proactive U.S. approach to the continent in an era of great-power competition.

A Framework for Analysis: Potential Influence

Our study distinguished between the actual exercise of influence and the possession of potential influence. In a bilateral relationship, potential influence consists of the capacity of the partners in the relationship to provide incentives and impose disincentives with respect to each other’s behavior. Potential influence is neither necessarily positive nor necessarily negative but rather contingent on circumstances. For example, a large Chinese diaspora in an African country might have a positive influence in terms of economic benefits, but could also raise social and cultural resentment.

We measured influence in five areas derived from a modified version of the diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (better known as DIME) model widely used to measure national influence. The five domains of potential influence included in this study were trade; development assistance, investment, and finance; military relationships; diplomatic and state-to-state relations; and social, information, and cultural relations.

Within each domain, we identified several indicators that would have significant relevance to the capacities of the United States and China to exercise influence. For example, within the trade domain, we identified six categories that could be measured: exports from China and the United States; exports to China and the United States; preferential trade arrangements; shipping and transportation links; existence of Chinese or American chambers of commerce; and service by Chinese and American air carriers.

We identified a total of 33 relevant indicators within the five domains. Possible scores for each indicator were zero, one, or two. We averaged the indicator scores within each domain, and then summed them up. The five domains were equally weighted.

To test the methodology, we chose four African countries — Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and Liberia — for study and evaluation. For each indicator, we identified at least one reliable source of data, focusing on the 2014–2019 period. The study did not explicitly take into account historical bilateral ties with African countries. Rather, we focused on current institutions and relationships, many of which stemmed from relationships nurtured over decades. We then collected and scored the data to compare American and Chinese performance in the 33 categories in each of the four countries.

Results Show China Leading but Not Dominant

The table below contains the potential influence summary scores for China and the United States in the four countries studied, on a scale of zero (no influence) to 10 (hegemonic potential influence).

China United States
Ethiopia 5.4 5.2
Ghana 5.2 4.4
Kenya 5.6 6.8
Liberia 5.4 4.5


Aside from the observation that Chinese potential influence appears to be greater than that of the United States in three of the four countries, the most interesting observation drawn from the scores is that all the summary scores fall into the middle of the range from zero to 10. In other words, the potential influence of China and the United States in each of the four countries is roughly even. These outcomes correspond with the results of the Afrobarometer survey described above that concluded that Africans perceive the United States and China as approximately equal external influencers. Interestingly, Chinese influence, while largely built on trade and investment, also rests on elements of soft power. The sheer numbers of Chinese nationals who are economically active in Africa, and of African students present in China, are powerful agents of potential influence.

The following are the summary scores and brief commentary for each of the four countries studied.


Category China United States
Trade 1.2 0.8
Development Assistance and Investment 1.5 0.9
Military 0.4 1.2
Diplomacy/State-to-State 1.3 1.3
Social/Information/Cultural 1.0 1.0
Summary Score 5.4 5.2


The results for Ethiopia were somewhat counterintuitive. In a country in which Chinese investments have gained a great deal of international attention, the Chinese and U.S. influence scores are relatively close. The U.S. lead in defense-related relationships offsets the Chinese advantage in the trade and development assistance and investment domains. U.S. attention to the bilateral military relationship — joint exercises and modest arms transfers — seems to have paid off in terms of potential influence. The gap in the trade area would have been greater save for the fact that the United States has become an important market for Ethiopian exports of coffee and apparel, the latter facilitated by the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which the U.S. Congress passed in 2000 and extended in 2015.


Category China United States
Trade 1.3 1.0
Development Assistance and Investment 0.9 1.1
Military 0.8 0.8
Diplomacy/State-to-State 1.0 1.0
Social/Information/Cultural 1.2 0.5
Summary Score 5.2 4.4


The case of Ghana illustrates the strength of China’s soft power. China’s potential influence in Ghana rests as much on the relatively soft social/information/cultural domain as on the “harder” domains of trade. The Chinese edge is particularly apparent in two indicators that relate to people-to-people influence: the number of Ghanaian students in China and the number of Chinese nationals living in Ghana. On both indicators, China has a commanding lead. Although the hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals living in Ghana have generated some social frictions, the businesses they run are significant private-sector employers. The thousands of Ghanaian students in China can be seen as an investment by China in future influence.


Category China United States
Trade 1.7 1.0
Development Assistance and Investment 1.1 1.1
Military 0.7 1.7
Diplomacy/State-to-State 1.0 1.5
Social/Information/Cultural 1.2 1.5
Summary Score 5.7 6.8


Kenya is an example of the importance of the military domain for American influence. The strength of the United States in that domain provides two-thirds of the American advantage in total potential influence. U.S. strength in the military domain, based on troop presence and frequent exchanges, is complemented by a U.S. lead in the diplomacy/state-to-state domain, in which the hosting of Kenyan leaders in Washington has been important. All in all, Kenya is an example of U.S. official relationships offsetting the Chinese lead in the trade area.


Category China United States
Trade 1.7 1.0
Development Assistance and Investment 1.1 0.9
Military 0.3 0.3
Diplomacy/State-to-State 1.3 1.3
Social/Information/Cultural 1.0 1.0
Summary Score 5.4 4.5


In light of the history of American involvement with Liberia since its founding, it is striking that China appears to possess more potential influence: Liberia is the only one of the four countries studied in which the United States does not outscore China in any of the five domains. American influence — which was formerly based on investment, military assistance, and cultural ties — seems to have dissipated across the board. Despite the close ties between the Liberian diaspora in the United States and the people of Liberia, China has managed to pull even with the United States in the social/information/cultural domain. This development is due in large part to China’s modest, but consistent, investments in educational exchanges. Today, more Liberian students study in China than in the United States. Chinese trading and investment relationships with Liberia are also modest in absolute terms, but they are dramatically larger than U.S. levels of engagement.

Why Might This Analysis Matter?

Although additional research and methodological development are warranted, it is apparent from the four test cases that it is possible to draw useful comparisons between the relative potential influences of China and the United States in Africa. That China appears to have greater potential influence than the United States in three of the four countries will not surprise many observers. More interesting is that Chinese potential influence is so broadly based, resting not only on trade but supported by all five domains. While Chinese trade and investment initiatives have grabbed the headlines, Beijing’s more low-key investments in cultural and educational exchange programs also seem to have borne fruit in terms of access and influence. The results of China’s balanced approach to relationships are most striking in Liberia, where Chinese application of soft power seems to have neutralized almost two centuries of American economic and cultural dominance.

One other conclusion from the study is equally important: The Chinese lead in potential influence is not overwhelmingly great, either as compared to the United States’ influence, or in absolute terms. In fact, the potential influence of both China and the United States in all four countries falls into the moderate range. The United States has managed to keep pace with China in the diplomatic and state-to-state and military domains. With modest investments in additional cultural exchanges along the lines of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a government program which connects new-generation African leaders and brings them to the United States for study, training, and networking, American influence in the social/cultural/information domain could be increased. The now-extended African Growth and Opportunity Act offers possibilities for expanded trade. The Prosper Africa Initiative the Trump administration launched could provide significant impetus to U.S. investment in the continent.

In short, all is far from lost, and modest levels of attention and investment could significantly increase the potential influence of the United States.

Finally, the methodology and results should be of interest to both analysts and policymakers. For the former, the methodology provides a path toward the formulation of objective comparisons of potential Chinese and American influence. For the latter, the comparisons resulting from the methodology are a means of transcending subjective evaluations of the effectiveness of Chinese and U.S. approaches to African countries and governments. By highlighting areas of relative strength and weakness in the positions of both China and the United States, the analyses could contribute to the formulation of more focused and decisive U.S. policies toward the countries of Africa.

The results of our study, as partial as they may be, indicate that a U.S. approach to the countries of Africa that builds on areas of strength — development assistance, especially in the health area; support for investment; security assistance in combating extremism; and expanded people-to-people initiatives — would bear more fruit than a policy derived principally from the imperatives of great-power competition.



Ambassador George Ward is an adjunct research staff member in the Africa Program at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He is a retired Foreign Service officer and former ambassador to the Republic of Namibia.

Eric Kiss is a research staff member in the Intelligence Analysis Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses and a retired U.S. Army foreign area officer.

Pat Savage is a research associate in the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He holds a master’s degree in security studies from the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

Image: Paul Kagame