This article provides an analysis of the competition that takes place between America and China. The study is divided into three main objectives. The first objective is to analyse the competition on an international, systemic level by using perspectives from the American National Security Strategy (NSS). The second objective is to use insights from the field of International Relations (IR) to provide a theoretical analysis and the third objective is to examine the implications of the competition for Africa.
After slightly longer than two decades of geopolitical tensions and competition between Washington and Beijing, the American administration has declared China a revisionist state. China’s goal is to challenge and undermine America’s influence in strategic areas of the world. In order to retain its superpower status, America needs to re-evaluate its current role in world politics. Perspectives from the NSS are used to analyse this competition because the document outlines America’s international goals and interests. It further provides direction for agencies to approach the international political and strategic environment in a secure manner. America approached China as an economic partner during previous administrations; however, reforms in China’s foreign policies, the joining of international organisations, economic growth and military modernisation changed the approach from partner to competitor. America views China’s hegemonic ambitions as a threat and has to implement strategies and policies to counter this threat.
The NSS argues that it is in the interest of America to maintain the liberal international order through projecting power and promoting strong diplomatic relations. The document further highlights that coordinated action between America and its allies could expose the true intentions of China. In a further step, America should disconnect its economy from China to protect its defence capabilities rather than maintain global trade networks. China undermines the international economic order through the pursuit of regional trade groupings, for example Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), special economic zones in Southeast Asia and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
America has strategic, economic, political, and humanitarian interests in Africa. Knowledge and awareness of Africa is essential for formulating a policy that can protect and advance strategic and security goals. In view of this, the American administration has formulated an African policy. This policy aims to maintain and strengthen ties with African countries and focuses on three main areas: first, improving trade and commercial ties, second, combating terrorist threats and Islamic extremism, and third, using American dollars for investments and economic opportunities. On the other hand, China is also actively engaged on the African continent and pursues goals that are largely in conflict with those of America. China’s defence strategy emphasises America’s smaller focus on combating terrorism and extremism and greater focus on possible conflict with China and Russia. In Africa, China has built the Djibouti military base and signed strategic partnerships with a host of African countries.
The economic and military rise of China poses a threat to America and impacts the shift of power in the international system. This shift is evident in both countries’ ambitions to become the dominant world power and secure their international interests. The American military is still used as a force to create stability and security in conflict areas, for example fighting terrorism and Muslim extremism, rather than promoting American interests and values. This is in contrast to the Chinese method of using economic means, for example the BRI, to first gain influence and then establish economic dominance in countries along the routes.
International technological leadership is a major field of competition between the two countries and rooted in the pursuit of market dominance. Technological competition is a quest for security and aims to establish geopolitical influence in countries where citizens depend on digital products and services provided by either America or China. In this regard, the development and use of technology is increasingly connected to the politics and ideology of the superpower. Technological competition becomes part of a system that opposes or accepts the political order: the relationship between state and community, and between government and citizens.
America with its liberal, democratic system and China with its authoritarian, communist regime show that the political/ideological dimension is a significant factor in the competition. The Chinese government declared technological development as a national asset under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. This means that technological security is placed in the same domain as national security. The “Made in China 2025 Policy” is a manifestation of the importance China attaches to technological development. Businesses are encouraged to develop local technologies in order to reduce dependency on foreign markets.
Power as a concept in IR theory plays an important role in this competition. The modern discourse of power refers to the economic and military capabilities of states. Both countries have the means to exercise international economic and military influence. In Africa, power is used to manage and mobilise resources for strategic outcomes. For example, China’s economic diplomacy is an important instrument in infrastructure development and the BRI, while America’s African Command Center (AFRICOM) is an instrument to combat extremism and the training of local armies. States that have the ability to utilise and change between military, economic and cultural power on an international scale are considered superpowers.
The NSS adopts principled realism as its main theoretical argument. This is because realism recognises the central role of power in international politics, confirms that sovereign states are the best hope for peace in the world, and spells out the national security goals of America in clear terms. An important aspect of the NSS is America’s ability to strategically compete with China. China’s military power currently does not equate to that of America but could overtake American defence spending in the next few years. Although the document theoretically departs from realism, concepts of constructivism are also used. This is seen in the promotion of cultural interaction, the sharing of ideas, interests and identity. Liberalism is rejected because regional and international organisations' collective nature undermines America’s dominant position and dictation of rules.
The development of a Chinese IR theory can explain the country’s views on international relations and what approaches to follow in managing relations with America. Of particular importance is China’s views on the international order. The liberal international order created by America is rejected because it is viewed as a threat to the communist ideology and the continuity of the one-party state. Chinese scholars also use realism to explain power competition with America. The two countries observe the international system and security through different lenses, which leads to different interpretations of each other’s ambitions and intentions. A difference in the economic and political policy agendas of the two countries is used as a last approach.
The American administration’s decision to downsize its African involvement gives China more opportunities to enter the African marketplace and increase military engagement. China is achieving great success with its economic diplomacy and other forms of soft power, for example cultural and public diplomacy. In addition, China will continue to promote cooperation with African countries under the BRI. From the American point of view, the Prosper Africa Initiative holds great promise to increase American-African trade and strengthen bilateral economic relationships. America has the ability to retain a competitive advantage over China if all the instruments of national power is used.
Finally, American-Chinese competition is growing from regional to international conflict. This competition for influence is particularly noticeable in the ideological differences between the two countries and international leadership in technology. The competition is stronger from the American administration. Both countries are also engaged in a battle for international military dominance, which affects international security. The strategic competition creates new models based on regional trade groupings which can lead to deglobalisation and a new international economic and political order: on the one side the current American liberal international order and on the other side the establishment of a China-centred international system.
Keywords: America’s African strategy; American-Chinese competition; China’s international ambitions; great power competition and international relations theory; National Security Strategy (NSS) of America; systemic and theoretical analysis
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