US-China Spat: Could Liberia Suffer Any Spillover?


Monrovia – Fresh from receiving a US$112 million aid package from the United States of America, President George Weah must now gear-up for a daunting diplomatic task amid a US-China trade war that keeps worsening.

Report by Alpha Daffae Senkpeni / [email protected]

As leader of the tiny west African nation with enormous challenges, Weah’s administration may be caught between the two global powers albeit rivals.

Diplomatic experts say he would now have to grapple with what appears to be a staggering caveat coming from Washington this month.

Just last week, the Weah administration was vaunting about Washington’s backing, after USAID announced that the grant and said it was to “assist Liberia to prioritize inclusive economic development as the fundamental driver of change.”

This is a boost for the government’s “pro-poor agenda” and many observers say it validates the long standing relationship between Monrovia and Washington.

But while the photographs of US Ambassador to Liberia Christiane Elder and President Weah were buzzing social media, a different narrative was emerging from the US White House.

‘Reshaped’ US Policy

Mr. Trump had already planned to reshape America’s policy in Africa by challenging the continent’s leaders to make a “strategic choice” between his country and China, which is already an influential power in Africa.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, Trump’s National Security Advisor recently alleged that China and Russian are “threatening the independence” of African nations.

“The predatory practices pursued by China and Russia stunt economic growth in Africa, threaten the financial independence of African nations, inhibit opportunities for U.S. investment, interfere with U.S. military operations and pose a significant threat to U.S. national security interests,” John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said on December 13, 2018 in a speech that sought to unveil the Trump administration’s new approach to African countries.

Why the New Approach?

The new policy seeks to strengthen the Trump administration ties with African leaders, which started off on a wrong footing early in 2018 after he labelled African nations as “shithole countries”.

Mr. Trump is now aiming to fortify ties with like-minded African allies and isolate uncooperative leaders who work with America’s biggest adversaries, the report says.

The new plan, which is dubbed “Prosper Africa” by the Trump administration, intends to shift the U.S. focus from counter-terrorism efforts to a fight for global supremacy with Russia and China.

This includes a plan to cut 10% of a strong 7,200 force across Africa although support to countries that are fighting terrorism would continue.

With Trump further pushing to “Make America Great Again”, the US now appears more weary of China’s footprints on the continent.

China’s expansive presence on the continent, from its East African military base in Djibouti to its role as one of Zambia’s biggest debt holders and spending of billions of dollars to build railways, dams, oil refineries and other major projects across Africa, seem to be making Washington pretty edgy.

Some diplomatic analysts have surmised that Washington is considering the Asian nation’s growing presence in Africa as a national security threat to its interest.

And its reinvented plan includes offering a reliable alternative with trade and investment to African countries with “like-minds”, Mr. Bolton said.

Clearly, Beijing and Washington are at odds. The ongoing trade war has turned into a critical diplomatic quarrel between the two countries.

The recent arrest of two Canadians by the Chinese governmnet is been considered a reprisal for the arrest of a senior executive of China’s foremost technology firm, Huawei.

Should Liberia Be concerned?

Analysts say the diplomatic spat has the tendency of a spillover. And with Mr. Bolton’s comments coming through unequivocally, traditional allies of the US, like Liberia, has to be concerned about reshaping their international relations policy.

Trump is threatening to “scale back aid” to countries that are “being overwhelmed by malign influence from China and from Russia,” according to caveat contain in a statement by his National Security advisor.

Liberia may not be one of those countries under the “malign influence” of the second largest econom in the world (China) but the country most definitely looks to Beijing for support and trade collaborations.

In recent years, Beijing has significantly supported Liberia’s development drives. Providing hundreds of scholarships for young Liberians to study at Chinese universities while supporting the country’s health sector and infrastructure projects.

The ongoing U$50 million ministerial complex construction project in Congo Town would be an iconic symbol of the Liberia-China ties when completed. It would complement the University of Liberia’s building on its Fendall campus and the Jackson F. Doe regional hospital in Nimba County.

But the long-standing ties between Monrovia and Washington is entrenched, which diplomatic experts say, surpasses any other foreign interest.

A Liberian diplomat Dr. Augustine Konneh says Liberia’s foreign policy allows for collaboration with other developing countries like China despite a long-standing strong and historic relations with the US.

“What has happened in the past is that America had allowed us to extend (based on) whatever policy we have with other nations to help us; there’s never been a time that America expressed dissatisfaction,” said the former director of Liberia’s foreign service institute.

However, he too is concern about the uncertainties that are springing out of the Trump administration which obviously have the propensity of impacting Liberia’s foreign policies.

“As a nation that has ties with the United States, we have to be able to forge our policies in a way that America will know that we are for them in totality,” he said, adding, “Therefore, we need to have a diplomacy which will help us to do that.”

Staying unflinchingly committed to America’s interest and at the same time sustaining contacts with Beijing is a daunting task in these times.

Dr. Konneh adds that the Liberian government must now carve a “balanced policy” to survive the imminent diplomatic upheaval.

“You have to be singing the praises of America throughout so that they can know that ‘this is our greatest ally especially as there’s now a shift in international power play and attitude and America has to make sure they make their position very clear so that they know who their allies are.

“So that non-alignment policies that we have, does not work any longer, and these are trying times so this administration has to put up with a new policy as it regards where we’re going.

“If we come up with a new policy that policy must fall in line with the African nations that we belong to including the African Union and Ecowas because we can not be isolated from the region but at the same time cannot isolate our strongest ally and that’s where the balance is going to come in.”

Already, little is known about Weah’s diplomatic prowess same as his choice for the country’s top diplomatic post – Foreign Minister Gbehzongar Findley, and it is unclear how the administration would respond to such caveat coming from a nation regarded as Liberia’s step father.