Editors’ note: Our biweekly Afrobarometer Friday series explores Africans’ views on democracy, governance, quality of life and other critical topics.

In the U.S.-China competition for influence in Africa, is there a winner?

The U.S. government has countered China’s growing engagement on the continent with warnings about “debt diplomacy” and reminders of the United States’ “true partnership.” The intensifying U.S.-China global competition may leave African leaders with a delicate balance to strike, along with presenting strategic opportunities for African nations to pursue their national interests. But analysts have also argued that the U.S.-China relationship highlights the need for a revitalized U.S. Africa policy marked by “constructive competition” rather than a zero-sum mind-set.

If both superpowers are aiming for influence in Africa, new data from Afrobarometer public attitude surveys in 18 African countries in 2019/2020 shed some light on their success. Africans generally have positive feelings about the roles the United States and China are playing on the continent, but Beijing’s influence has weakened in popular perceptions. Significantly, many Africans welcome both Chinese and U.S. engagement with their countries.

What do Africans see as the best development model?

In surveys largely completed before covid-19 began dominating national headlines, Afrobarometer asked respondents which country provides the best model for the future development of their own country. The United States still dominates: 32 percent of Africans identify the U.S. model as their preferred, while 23 percent prefer China’s (see Figure 1). About 1 in 10 choose the former colonial power in their country (Britain, France or Portugal), and an equal share select a continental model: South Africa.

Across the 16 countries where Afrobarometer also asked this question in 2014/2015, there was little aggregate change in preference for China or the United States as a model, although overall, the gap has narrowed from 11 to eight percentage points. At the country level, large gains in preference for China in a few countries (including a 19-percentage-point increase in Burkina Faso) have been offset by declines in others (including drops of 11 percentage points in Namibia and seven points in Cabo Verde).

Given that China is the relative newcomer in this global competition, it’s interesting that younger Africans are more likely than their elders to favor the U.S. model (36 percent of those ages 18 to 25 vs. 25 percent of those over age 65), while regard for the Chinese model is fairly steady across all age groups. Both the U.S. and Chinese models score higher among respondents with more education.

Africans generally view China warmly, but perceptions of Beijing’s influence have declined. Across 16 countries, the proportion of Africans who say China has “some” or “a lot” of influence in their country has dropped steeply since 2014/2015, falling from 71 percent to 56 percent, while the share who see China’s influence as mostly positive has decreased more modestly, from 65 percent to 60 percent. China’s perceived influence has declined in all of the surveyed countries except Cabo Verde, most steeply in Mali (down 21 points), Malawi (23 points), Botswana (24 points), and Sierra Leone (39 points) (see Figure 2).

On average, across 18 countries, almost identical proportions see the influence of China (59 percent) and the United States (58 percent) as “somewhat” or “very” positive (Figure 3). In 10 countries, the difference is five percentage points or less; the only double-digit gap is in Mali, where perceptions of positive Chinese influence (80 percent) exceed those of positive U.S. influence (60 percent) by 20 percentage points.

Importantly, it appears that for many Africans, U.S.-China “competition” may not be an either-or proposition but a win-win. Those who are positive about the influence of China are more likely to feel positively about U.S. influence as well — the two views are strongly and positively correlated, instead of moving in opposite directions (where one increases as the other decreases), which we would expect if Africans perceived this to be purely a competition.

Does Africa have too much debt?

China has made major investments in infrastructure in Africa, many in the form of loans that must be repaid rather than grants or gifts. But across 18 African countries, on average, fewer than half (48 percent) of respondents are aware that their country receives loans or development assistance from China, including fewer than 3 in 10 in Sierra Leone (29 percent), Nigeria (28 percent) and Tunisia (24 percent).

A substantial majority (77 percent) of those who know about the loans and assistance correctly understand that their governments usually must repay China. At the same time, there is some awareness of the generally much lighter burden of conditionality that China puts on its debtors compared with other donor countries: 41 percent say China places fewer requirements than other donors, compared with 24 percent who say it places more.

But even with some understanding that their governments may face easier terms when borrowing from China, 58 percent of those who are aware of these loans believe their government has borrowed too much money from China. Kenyans (87 percent), Namibians (78 percent) and Angolans (75 percent) are particularly concerned about being overly indebted to China. This concern increases with respondents’ education level (62 percent among those with postsecondary education).

This suggests that the U.S. government and other development partners may be meeting with some success in their efforts to remind Africans that even if money from China and other nontraditional development partners comes with fewer strings, they face the risk of a deepening debt trap.

But is Mandarin the language of the future?

China’s pursuit of “soft power,” including a proliferation of Confucius Institutes across Africa, appears to be making little progress. Figure 4 shows that Africans remain far more interested in learning English (71 percent say it is the best international language for their children to learn) than in learning Chinese (2 percent). English is particularly valued by Africans with at least a secondary education (78 percent), though interest in Chinese also is higher among those with higher education (5 percent).

And is there a winner?

U.S. government efforts to portray Chinese investment in Africa as dangerous do not seem to resonate with the average person, however. Here’s an example: One study overlaying Chinese aid projects and Afrobarometer data on public perceptions suggests that these projects contribute to a positive view of Chinese aid among local populations.

One important takeaway for Western policymakers may be that Africans welcome engagement that addresses Africa’s priorities — regardless of whether it originates in China or the United States. In the eyes of many Africans, the winner in the U.S.-China competition for influence in Africa could conceivably be all three.

Naunihal Singh is an assistant professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. The opinions expressed are his own, and not those of his employer. He is the author of “Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016).

Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny is Afrobarometer regional communications coordinator for Anglophone West Africa, based at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana). Find her on Twitter @JAppiahNyamekye.

E. Gyimah-Boadi is interim CEO of Afrobarometer. Find him on Twitter @gyimahboadi.

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