Melania Trump’s Africa Trip Represents a Substantial Victory For China

As China continues to secure further economic partnerships with a variety of African nations from Algeria to South Africa and from Ethiopia to Nigeria, the United States has increased both its military presence in the continent, all the while waging an infowar whose narrative seeks to suggest that African participation in the Belt and Road initiative is somehow a form of neo-colonialism.

In reality, China’s Belt and Road partnerships throughout Africa represent something of a last best chance for the notoriously underdeveloped and habitually exploited continent to reap the benefits of its vast natural resources on a win-win model that helps African nations to create a sustainable development model on their own terms in a close partnership with China, a nation that has already shown that it is willing to put its money on the line with no strings attached in order to help accelerate pan-African development.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has recently hosted multiple African heads of state, government and foreign ministers as part of the 2018 Beijing Summit on China-Africa Cooperation. As part of the summit, Beijing has promised an additional $60 billion worth of investment, aid, loans and credit lines into economies throughout Africa in addition to the billions that China pledged during the recent  BRICS summit in Johannesburg.

China’s official Xinhua news outlet describes the main goals for Sino-Africa cooperation as outlined by President Xi in the following way:

“On industrial promotion, Xi said a China-Africa economic and trade expo will be set up in China and Chinese companies are encouraged to increase investment in Africa. China will carry out 50 agricultural assistance programs, provide emergency humanitarian food aid amounting to 1 billion yuan (147 million U.S. dollars) to African countries affected by natural disasters, and send 500 senior agricultural experts to Africa.

On infrastructure connectivity, Xi said China will work with the African Union to formulate a China-Africa infrastructure cooperation plan and support Chinese companies in taking part in Africa’s infrastructure development by way of investment-construction-operation or through other models.

On trade facilitation, Xi said China will increase imports, especially non-resource products, from Africa and support African countries in participating in China International Import Expo. The least developed African countries will be exempted from paying exhibition stand fees, he said.

On green development, Xi said China will undertake 50 aid projects on green development, and ecological and environmental protection, with a focus on climate change, ocean, desertification prevention and control, and wildlife protection.

On capacity building, Xi said China will set up 10 Luban Workshops in Africa to offer vocational training for young Africans. China will also train 1,000 high-caliber Africans, provide Africa with 50,000 government scholarships, sponsor seminar and workshop opportunities for 50,000 Africans, and invite 2,000 African youths to visit China for exchanges.

On health care, Xi said China will upgrade 50 medical and health aid programs for Africa, with a focus on flagship projects such as the headquarters of the African Center for Disease Control and Prevention and China-Africa Friendship Hospitals.

On people-to-people exchanges, Xi said China will set up an institute of African studies and enhance exchanges with Africa on civilization. China welcomes Africa’s participation in the Silk Road International League of Theaters, the Silk Road International Museum Alliance and the Network of Silk Road Art Festivals.

On peace and security, Xi said China will set up a China-Africa peace and security fund and continue providing free military aid to the African Union. A total of 50 security assistance programs will be carried out in the fields including UN peacekeeping missions, fighting piracy, and combating terrorism”.

While urging China’s African partners to avoid wasteful vanity projects and instead focus on sustainable infrastructural and human development projects, China’s long term goal is to transform the manifold economies of Africa into harmonious entities cooperating with one another within the frame work of the Belt and Road initiative. In this sense, while the African Union was officially formed under its present guise in 1999 upon the signing of the Sirte Declaration and while the overarching concept of Pan-Africanism long predates the Sirte Declaration, Belt and Road realistically gives African peoples and nations the most realistic opportunity to pursue cross-border cooperation while investment from the Chinese superpower helps to transform Africa’s economies by modernising production capacity and export productivity, all the while raising living standards and thus helping African economies transform from net recipients of aid to what is potentially one of the world’s largest consumer bases.

During his meetings with African leaders, Xi once again held a private session with South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa who recently hosted the BRICS summit where the China’s President affirmed Beijing’s commitment to a long term Sino-African partnership. While China’s commitments to Africa are objectively positive moves for the world’s most economically neglected and underdeveloped economy, beyond specific initiatives and cash injections, China’s African partnership initiatives represent a clear break from a colonial past that continues to stifle African development.

These recent developments between China and Africa were likely the inspiration for US First Lady Melania Trump’s lengthy tour of African nations – he first ever solo tour abroad as First Lady. While as a apolitical figure, Melania Trump’s visit was more of a good will mission (aka an infowar mission) than one designed to secure specific bilateral business deals, the optics of her tour may well have inadvertently done more harm than good to America’s reputation in Africa.

While Chinese President Xi Jinping recently gave a no strings attached $60 billion investment spread across multiple African nations while China continues to invest billions more in infrastructural and human development initiatives across the continent, the US just offered something very different: the chance to look at a white European supermodel whose main claim to fame is having married an American billionaire.

Even before Melania Trump was photographed wearing attire that hinted at the age of western European colonialism in Africa, the contrast between China offering money and bespoke initiatives on how to transform the money into sustainable and ecologically sound development and America sending a famous supermodel to go on safari dressed like the wife of a late Victorian British Viceroy was stark to say the least.

This is not to say that there was any malice on Melania Trump’s part. If anything, Melania Trump is the most unwilling first lady in recent American history and her trip to Africa may well have been as much for her pleasure as for the wider US led infowar against Chinese development strategies in Africa.

And yet because of the political nature of any trip by a US “official” (even an apolitical one), many African policy makers, businessmen and women and activists will be looking at the spectacle of Melania Trump in Africa and thinking that it smacks of neocolonialism. Furthermore, the fact that the neocolonial optics may have been unintentional is if anything doubly insulting as it shows the caviller attitude that the US takes towards Africa. By contrast, US officials including first ladies travelling to wealthy American allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel always make sure to dress in a way that does not offend local sensibilities. This is certainly true of Melania Trump who accompanied her husband on his first ever trips abroad as US President which just happened to be to both Saudi Arabia and Israel. In both places she carefully adhered to a combination of local protocol and individual characteristics.

Therefore, what was supposed to be an easy infowar victory for the US has turned into an accidental victory for China. While Chinese policy markers come to Africa offering a better future, when America’s First Lady comes to Africa, she offers a photogenic glimpse of a colonial past that is universally reviled in Africa.

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