The Trump administration has set its sights on Africa as an important front in the fight against the coronavirus — and against China.
In April, President Donald Trump launched a flurry of phone calls to African leaders, promising to send ventilators to help as the coronavirus continued its march across the globe. The outreach came on the heels of a fresh pledge from the State Department to send millions of dollars to several African countries to help combat the pandemic. And earlier this month, the Trump administration said it would donate up to 1,000 ventilators to South Africa, which has the highest number of coronavirus cases on the continent.
The spate of action was notable, given Trump has not publicly discussed the continent much during his presidency. And when he has, it has often been in a negative way, such as when Trump moved to restrict Nigerians immigrating to the U.S., or when reports surfaced the president had referred to African nations as “shithole countries.”
Yet the administration sees an opening here, according to officials and regional specialists. The U.S. government is aiming to show it can offer leadership on global health after Trump cut off funding to the World Health Organization. The administration is also trying to signal that African countries can look to the U.S. instead of China, which is facing its own backlash on the continent. As China warns the U.S. is pushing the two countries “to the brink of a new Cold War,” Africa is poised to become a prime spot for proxy battles for influence and capital.
“Africa is a key battle point because China wants to keep the African states on its side,” said Joshua Meservey, an Africa and Middle East expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s an important source of support for the Chinese Communist Party and they are working hard to make sure their narrative gains traction over the U.S. message.”
And the administration is confident its message will win out, arguing that China is essentially trying to help extinguish a pandemic it helped create.
“The Chinese Communist Party is doing this first and foremost for the Chinese Communist Party,” said a senior State Department official. “When there is an emergency, whether it is Ebola or Covid, the United States is there. Not only did we not set fire to the village but we’re bringing the most buckets of water.”
During his three-plus years as president, Trump has not made Africa a public priority. He has hosted few African leaders at the White House and rarely prioritizes African issues. Although First Lady Melania Trump and the president’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump have visited the continent, Trump has not.
Trump “has met with African leaders in the Oval Office fewer times than any going back to [Dwight] Eisenhower,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
To the extent Trump has talked about the continent, it has often been about fighting terrorism on the continent or imposing limits on immigration from African countries to the U.S. Trump has also repeatedly proposed deep cuts to foreign aid that would affect funding that goes to projects in Africa. Congress has largely rejected these proposed cuts, however, and the U.S. remains a leading source of foreign aid for African countries.
Meanwhile, China has been Africa’s largest trading partner since 2009 and continues to spend billions on development projects on the continent. And during the coronavirus, Chinese charities donated medical equipment to African countries in the first few months of the pandemic. Chinese President Xi Jinping boasted about these efforts at the World Health Assembly last week during a speech that focused on boosting African development.
Trump administration officials have taken note of China’s coronavirus campaign in Africa, and are frustrated at the country’s attempts to position itself as a benevolent power during the pandemic.
“I have to give the Chinese Communist Party the chutzpah of the year award for what they’ve done with Covid,” the State Department official said.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration has also made a show of extending a hand to Africa. In late April, Trump phoned the leaders of Rwanda, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria.
Devermont described the calls as “a burst of activity" on Africa by Trump's standards, “probably the most active he has been on sub-Saharan Africa since the [United Nations] General Assembly in 2017,” when the president hosted a luncheon with African leaders to discuss trade and economic development. (At the same luncheon, he also lauded the health care system of the nonexistent nation of Nambia).
Around the same time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — coming off a trip in February to Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia — also announced an additional $270 million in foreign aid to combat the coronavirus, specifically targeting some of the money for African countries such as Algeria, Botswana, the Republic of Congo, Ghana and Liberia.
Across the African continent, there are over 100,000 confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University, but administration officials caution it’s hard to get an accurate count due to lack of data and testing. The need for ventilators is particularly acute. According to WHO statistics, there are fewer than 2,000 ventilators in 41 African countries that reported the data.
National security officials have long feared large-scale outbreaks could occur in the more densely populated areas of Africa.
“Our actions and investments are not a public relations effort to counter China or to save face, but rather an effort to save lives in Africa during a critical time,” one senior administration official said.
But the administration might have a rare window of opportunity, regardless. Anti-China sentiment was on the rise in Africa before the coronavirus over reports that African immigrants were being mistreated in China. The president mentioned “racially discriminatory actions” in China against Africans in a letter to the WHO focused on the U.N.’s relationship with China. And once the pandemic broke out, frustration grew over Beijing’s stance on granting debt relief to African countries amid the coronavirus-spurred economic downturn.
“I think there’s a recognition that we have to do more, and China is making a lot of hay through its mass diplomacy,” Devermont said. “I think we could do a much better job of amplifying what our private sector is doing — that’s what the Chinese are doing.”
The senior administration official noted that “American businesses, NGOs and faith-based organizations have provided nearly $3 billion to Africa in the form of donations and other assistance.”
And publicly, the Trump administration in April endorsed a plan from the Group of 20 major economies that allows low-income countries, including those in Africa, to suspend debt payments to other countries. China is considered to be the largest holder of African debt, and there is an ongoing debate about how to handle a looming debt crisis on the continent.
“There's an enormous amount of debt that the Chinese Communist party has imposed on African countries all across the region,” Pompeo said in late April in a call with Africa-focused journalists. “It is something that the African countries should consider, too, in asking China for debt relief on some deals that have incredibly onerous terms that will impact the African people for an awfully long time, if relief is not granted.”
The senior administration official said China holds an estimated $143 billion of African debt, although the total may be much higher.