China and the U.S. are often portrayed as struggling for influence around the world. But to look at it this way is to risk a self-fulfilling prophecy, as this view implies that international relations are a zero-sum game and are, in fact, about being “either with or against” one or the other. European countries do, for instance, have quite elaborate contacts with Beijing – and the U.S. does not see that as a power struggle about influence there.
African states are enjoying the liberty to broaden the scope of their external relations, going beyond the limitations that the U.S.-Soviet cold war inflicted on them. This has several aspects: First, it is comforting to be in demand by numerous partners and to see some more options beyond the previously marginalized position. Second, it gives additional choices and makes international relations more complex, but also more flexible. Third, most African states do not want to throw themselves at either the U.S. or China, but want to be members of the international community with diversified foreign relations.
Thus, to avoid a U.S.-China “cold war,” we should ensure that African states do not face an either-or choice. The development toward a more multipolar world is a fact of life, with not only China but also India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and others playing an increasingly important role in their regions and globally. This might be making the world a less predictable place, as there is more than one or two actors to consider. But it is the world beyond the cold war. We should engage constructively with it — and leave African states their choices in this world.