Implications of the US-led War on Terror for Africa-China relations

Bhaso Ndzendze, Director of Research, CACS

China has come to match, and in some instances replace, the US as the pre-eminent economic and political player in East Africa. This study examines whether this is due to the US-led War on Terror, which has associated it with insulated (and sometimes controversial) priorities; a disregard for international institutions and laws; bellicosity against African states and African allies; and political interference and even regime change in other countries in several world regions, including Libya and Iraq. In theory, all these factors could have diminished American influence and created a vacuum that came to be filled by China which, while fighting its own war on terror, has shunned interference in the internal affairs of other countries, thereby bolstering its ‘soft power’ appeal among African countries.

This study finds, however, that the War on Terror only led to the US being displaced by China in one of four East African countries studied, namely Sudan. In the others, Uganda, Kenya and Djibouti, the War on Terror has actually strengthened US involvement. This shows that US-led efforts against terrorism in African countries have helped to make them safer for Chinese investment as well.

The study also points to important conclusions about how most African states view international engagement involving the US and China. Rather than applying the bipolar Cold War lens of maintaining relations with one major power only (either China or the US), they are open to engagement with both these countries insofar as both have developmental routes to offer that are not mutually exclusive.