Trump’s big elephant fight with China will cause the African grass to suffer

US President Donald Trump (L) and China's President Xi Jinping leaving a 2017 business leaders event in Beijing -- US officials are demanding far-reaching changes to Chinese industrial policy. AFP/File/Nicolas ASFOURI

Any resources that are spent fuelling the cost of a feud could be better spent in Africa.

Africans have some great proverbs. One of my favourites is: “When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers.”

The fight that Trump is trying to pick with the Chinese during the corona crisis sure fits this bill. The global implications aren’t good if this goes where it’s headed; the impact on Africa could be unimaginably devastating.

The moment begs for reasonable and responsible leaders, the world over, to do everything possible to stop this madness. This is not a fight that needs to be fought, from a common sense or competitive perspective.

Common sense would suggest that in the midst of a worldwide viral outbreak, the last thing the world needs is a fight between the world’s two preeminent economic powers. If we ever needed to be united, we certainly need to be united now. Neither the virus nor the economic contagion following in its wake know (or respect) boundaries or borders.

So, “go-it-alone” strategies are doomed by definition. For Africa, the implications are particularly profound if this “thing” between the US and China gets out of hand. Africa needs help addressing the challenge this viral outbreak represents.  If Africa stays sick, even after the rest the of the world heads towards recovery, everyone is still in danger.

Likewise, it is going to require much more resources than Africa has for it to recover from the fallout from this outbreak. Neither the US nor China should be wasting resources at a time like this.

The United States has designated $2 trillion toward its recovery. The World Bank is proposing to spend $160 billion for all of Africa. Let me provide some perspective relative to what that means. The US will be spending 12.5 times more on its recovery than will be spent on all of Africa. If you break the number down into per capita cost, the US will be spending 37.5 times as much as is being allocated for the entire continent.

That’s not right and that’s not fair. There are much more productive ways for the US and China to spend their time and money than fussing and fighting with each other.

This fight also doesn’t make sense from a competitive perspective. The supposed threat of China to American dominance is blown way out of proportion. The global economy is still denominated in dollars. The world still seeks safe haven in US equities and bonds. The US still has the world’s largest economy (not to mention the world’s mightiest military). China poses no immediate threat to American hegemony, and, even if it did, the time to fight that battle is not in the midst of a pandemic.

It is going to require all hands on deck for Africa to recover from the damage caused by the corona crisis. There have been three major shocks to the global economy over the past 20 years – 9/11, the 2008 meltdown, and now this. None of these have been Africa’s doing, yet Africa has absorbed the most damage.

Before 9/11, I served as the US envoy to Tanzania. One of the most compelling points in marketing countries like Tanzania was that all across the continent countries had double-digit growth rates. Since 9/11, Africa has yet to recover from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center or the 2008 “Great Recession”. This crisis should not be another time that the world looks the other way.

The coronavirus aside, Africa needs America and China on the same page regardless. Right after the World Bank announced a very limited Covid-19 health emergency, Trump’s Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross went on television and said, in effect, that the coronavirus might be good news for the American economy.

His “thinking” was if businesses rethought their supply chain strategies because of the coronavirus that could mean more jobs for Americans.

News flash! Americans don’t want those low-wage, hard-work jobs. So, even if businesses start rethinking supply chain issues, the kinds of jobs based in China are going somewhere else. That somewhere else should be Africa. With the world’s youngest population and strongest population growth, Africa needs those jobs and can be competitive in filling those jobs. America and China need to work together to ensure that Africa fills that niche.

Even considering what some call China-American competition in Africa, there’s no cause for fighting. America is losing ground to China in Africa, and that’s a fact. But it is not because the Chinese are cheating. It’s because America isn’t competing.

During the Clinton era, the US sought to engage in Africa with the passage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa). Agoa gave trade preferences to certain goods and commodities from the continent. After the 9/11 terrorist attack, the Bush Administration took things to another level, with such initiatives as Pepfar, Africom, and the Millennium Challenge initiative. Sadly, the US has not done much more, in more than a decade, to build on what was done or look for new ways to do more.

Needless to say, Trump’s tweet about Africa being a continent full of “sh*thole countries” didn’t do much to enhance America’s competitive position on the continent.

While it’s pretty obvious what the proverb I cited means, let me leave nothing to chance and make it plain. The thing about grass suffering when elephants fight means that when the mighty do battle with each other, it is the vulnerable and marginal that suffer.

Africa has done enough suffering for several lifetimes. It’s time that everybody gets on the same page to help the continent fulfil its enormous potential and provide better life options for its people.

Stith is a former US Ambassador and is currently the Chairman of the US-based Pula Group, which invests in Africa. He is also the nonexecutive chair of the African Presidential Leadership Center based in Johannesburg.

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