China Strengthens Ties in Mideast and Africa As US Influence Declines

Perceptions of America's global influence are in decline, according to a report from the Eurasia Group Foundation, as the number of global respondents who gave a "very positive" appraisal of U.S. influence decreased by 20% between 2019 and 2021.

These declines in sentiment are most pronounced in Middle Eastern and African states, which have opened their doors for Chinese dealmakers to expand their global influence.

Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted at this trend at the recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, where he told a group of lawmakers, "We both advocate a development path suited to our national conditions and are both committed to upholding the rights and interests of developing countries. We both oppose intervention in domestic affairs, racial discrimination and unilateral sanctions."

The last decade in these regions has seen a significant decline in American popularity and a rise in Chinese investment. In 2010, 81% of respondents in Nigeria, Africa's largest economy, held a favorable view of the U.S., compared to just 62% in 2019.

In that same period, China-Africa trade volume rose from $114.81 billion in 2010 to $254 billion in 2021.

Studies conducted in the Middle East reveal a similar trend. Negative views of the U.S. in the region have risen sharply, primarily as a result of interventionist policies in places like Afghanistan and a feeling that U.S. foreign policy is increasingly "hypocritical."

"In Algeria, only 13% believe China investment is a threat, while 31% believe the U.S. investment is an internal threat," Sarwar Kashmeri, adjunct professor and fellow at the Foreign Policy Association, told Newsweek, citing studies from Pew Research and the Arab Barometer.

"In Jordan, another American ally, only 15% believe China is a threat compared to 26% who believe the U.S. is," he said. "Finally in Lebanon, 26% believe China's investments are a red flag, compared to 47% when asked about American investments."

"The last three decades of United States involvement in the world has been provocatively militaristic in nature," Kashmeri added, noting that this approach has alienated many and deterred the spirit of international collaboration.

While America continues to be a major trading partner for many African and Middle Eastern nations, these shifting trends are a cause of concern, as the U.S. relies on regional exports of agricultural products, crude petroleum, and other strategic raw materials.

"Our engagement in Africa is not about China or any other third party," U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said during an official visit to Nigeria in November. "It's about Africa."

"Our purpose is not to make our partners choose, it is to give them choices," he said in Senegal. "And when people have choices, they usually make the right one."

The declining reputation of the U.S. in both regions has created opportunities for competition. China has moved quickly to take advantage of those opportunities, as many regional stakeholders express an appetite for a new era of international diplomacy.

"The peoples of the region share a desire for freedom from imperial or colonial dominance and for affirmation of their disparate religious, ethnic, or cultural identities," said Charles W. Freeman, former president of the Middle East Policy Council.

Compared to Western nations that often stigmatize and restrict collaboration with African and Middle Eastern governments, the Chinese government has appeared willing to proactively engage in both economic and cultural exchange.

"China itself is not very far from having been in the same condition of poverty," said W. Gyude Moore, former Liberian official and senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. "Our situations might look strange to Europeans, but the Chinese are far more familiar with the context."

While most of U.S. trade with the Middle East and Africa is driven by exports of raw materials and resources, Chinese collaboration in these regions tends to exchange raw materials for infrastructure projects and low-priced consumer goods.

Chinese trade with Africa has totaled $254 billion, while trade with Gulf Coast states approached $240 billion in 2021. These numbers have only increased year to year while American trade numbers in the regions see steady declines.

Both regions have major infrastructure and technological gaps that must be filled, and China is offering better deals to do so, said Moore.

Western governments and companies are typically hesitant to invest in regions and nations they see as "high-risk," he said. On the other hand, the Chinese have an approach of "non-interference" which allows them to invest over longer periods of time.

"There is a perception of Africa as risky for business and investment from the West," Moore said. "That perception of risk has meant that the West has been weary about making large infrastructure investments."

"But over the last two decades," he added, "China has had an appetite for African risks and has provided the things Africa needed, especially infrastructure."

Unlike the U.S., China practices capitalism free of any requirements for liberal democracy, and therefore has no reservations about dealing with regimes that have questionable records in protecting key democratic values.

"Unlike the U.S., which wants trading partners to be part of the liberal world order — free press, elections, democracy — China does not really care about that," Kashmeri told Newsweek. "It sees that much of the Middle Eastern population is young, and mainly thinks, 'How can we sell to them?'"

"The Chinese help build bridges and roads, and do not get involved in any of their politics or military aspirations," he added. "The main business of China is business, and that is a big reason for their rapid expansion."

While partnerships between African states, Middle Eastern nations and the Chinese are not perfect, many on the ground prefer this new approach to the ways of old.

"Chinese deals are not ideal in the universe of all possible deals," Moore said. "However, they were usually the only reasonable things on the table, and as long as there were no competitors for financing, we took what the Chinese presented."

He said this is the first time in recent memory that the African people have seen direct results from their exports.

"When the Chinese came in and begun building roads and water filtration, for the very first time, you could see a direct connection between your resources leaving your country and a physical benefit that accrues to the people," Moore said.

"Most Westerners do not appreciate this," he added.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) greets China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (R) during an inspection tour of the New Kipevu Oil Terminal at Mombasa Port in Mombasa on January 6, 2022. Photo by AFP via Getty Images

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