Democracy Dies in Darkness

Monkey Cage | Analysis

Donald Trump's team has questions about China in Africa. Here are answers.

By Janet Eom

January 16, 2017 at 5:00 AM

A giant inflatable rooster, widely perceived in China to resemble President-elect Donald Trump, is inflated at a factory in Jiaxing, near Shanghai, on Friday. (Paul Traynor/Associated Press)

President-elect Donald Trump's transition team has circulated a list of questions on Africa to the State Department and Pentagon. At the top of the list are two queries about the United States and China and their relative presence on that continent: "How does U.S. business compete with other nations in Africa? Are we losing out to the Chinese?"

Peter Navarro, who will lead Trump's National Trade Council, provided his own answers in his book "Death by China." He writes, "[China's] million-man army is moving relentlessly across Africa … locking down strategic natural resources, locking up emerging markets, and locking out the United States." Navarro says this is part of China's strategy to boost its factories back home and undermine the U.S. manufacturing base.

China's engagement in Africa does affect the United States, but the reality is more nuanced. Our research at the China-Africa Research Initiative rigorously investigates Chinese trade, investments and loans to African countries and offers insights into how China's interests across Africa will actually affect the incoming Trump administration.

Chinese exports dwarf U.S. exports

Trump proposes imposing a 45 percent tariff on Chinese imports to the United States to protect U.S. manufacturers and harm Chinese ones. But the United States is not China's only export destination.

Between 2004 and 2009, China-Africa trade grew at an annual rate of over 40 percent. In 2009, China surpassed the United States as Africa's top trade partner. We observe that since then, Chinese exports to Africa have grown steadily, reaching about $103 billion in 2015. In contrast, U.S. exports to Africa the same year amounted to only $27 billion.

Today, Chinese exports to Africa are mostly manufactured products: machinery, electronics, automobiles and textiles. These are absorbed by the continent's rapidly growing middle class, which has a strong demand for consumer goods. Although definitions differ, the World Bank estimates the middle class makes up 34 percent of Africa's population, and its consumer spending is expected to reach $2.2 trillion by 2030.

For now, Chinese goods will continue to flow into expanding markets in Africa. This will offset, even if slightly, Trump's intention to block the global movement of Chinese products through a trade war.

Manufacturing jobs are moving to Africa

On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to bring Chinese manufacturing jobs back to American soil. But with wages rising in China, Chinese industries are upgrading: Knowledge-intensive services and information technology are replacing labor-intensive manufacturing firms. Jobs that once migrated from the United States to China are now offshoring to Africa.

With low-end manufacturing on the way out, what was "Made in China" is now "Made in Africa." The Huajian Group, one of the largest shoe manufacturers in China, employing 25,000 workers, opened a factory in Ethiopia in 2012; the company will invest $2 billion over five years to build a "shoe city" in Addis Ababa. Supply chains now span the United States, China and Africa: Huajian produces for U.S. brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Guess and, ironically, Ivanka Trump's eponymous shoe line.

Our research at such firms across Africa reveals Chinese managers increasingly implement technical skills-training programs for their African workers. African workers frequently make up over 80 percent of the factory workforce. Some receive further training in China. This investment in local workers indicates a serious commitment to the longevity of Chinese manufacturing operations in Africa.

'China model' vs. 'U.S. model' 

Africans rank China second as "a development model" after the United States. So how does the "China model" differ from the "U.S. model" in Africa?

Related: [Here’s what Africans think about China’s influence in their countries]

President Obama and Hillary Clinton have suggested that the United States, unlike China, will "stand up for democracy and universal human rights" rather than simply "extract minerals" in Africa. Washington has viewed its own model in Africa as promoting good governance and environmental responsibility.

That could change under Trump. Observers argue that his support for undemocratic regimes threatens human rights around the world. Trump claimed global warming was created by the Chinese to disadvantage U.S. manufacturing, and several of his Cabinet nominees deny climate change and hold special interests in the oil-and-gas industry. In departing from the "U.S. model," Trump may come to embody the characteristics that Obama and Clinton attributed to the "China model."

But this isn't new. China has previously called out the United States for being hypocritical on human rights issues. And research reveals Chinese firms aren't any more environmentally destructive in Africa than Western ones. Perhaps Trump will reveal that the United States and China are more similar than different in Africa, after all; the dichotomy between the two "models" may dissolve.

As Trump continues to break with U.S. policy set by his predecessors, the effects will reverberate in Africa. When he breached protocol by taking a call from Taiwan's president and openly questioning the one-China policy, Beijing responded by calling the policy "nonnegotiable." In fact, Beijing takes the one-China policy seriously, everywhere: Our database reveals the three African countries that recognize Taiwan — Burkina Faso, Sao Tome and Principe, and Swaziland — don't receive any Chinese loans. Each time Trump acts to change the status quo on U.S.-China relations, African countries are watching what it means for themselves.

Trump's "America First" outlook largely promotes protectionist, isolationist policies. But matters are more complex in a globalized world. Driven by internal economic upheaval, China has its own agenda for engaging with the rest of the world on trade, manufacturing and other economic affairs, and its relationship with the developing world will only continue to grow. To understand the future effect of Beijing's policies on the U.S. economy and its workers, Trump would be wise to look at China's role in Africa.

Janet Eom is the research manager at the China-Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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