US and China compete for influence in Africa’s digital future

2023 began with a ‘new’ wave of digital technologies: Generative AI platforms and the ‘AI-tisation’ of every possible aspect of social life, which have opened up a new dimension in geopolitics.

This emergence of new forms of artificial intelligence only points to one thing: the ‘digital arms race’ among major world powers would only continue to increase, as countries now view digital technologies as instruments of strategic and security importance, similar to how natural resources were regarded in the 19th and 20th centuries. These technologies will not only redefine the conduct of international politics, but they are now also major arenas of geopolitical and economic interests. 

A prominent example of such ‘digital arms race’ is the ongoing US-China tech competition. This ‘Great Tech Rivalry’ as we know it broadly plays out in two forms: the first is the protectionist approach each party takes to limit the influence of the other’s technologies on its economy. For instance, in the last few years, Washington has imposed tough sanctions on Chinese tech companies — including limiting their access to critical American technologies such as semiconductors; banning the sale and import of services or products from Huawei and ZTE; and the recent scrutinisation of TikTok, prohibiting its usage on US’ state-owned devices. America is now also heavily concerned about the national security implications of its interdependence on Chinese technologies. Nonetheless, for all its recent decoupling efforts, Washington has historically been more open to technology relations with China than China has with it.

On its end, Beijing is closed to all forms of foreign competition, not just with the U.S.; as evident in its highly restrictive import regime for digital services, a highly regulated internet space, and strong data localisation laws

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How does this competition play out in Africa?

Whichever way it swings, this tech competition could significantly impact smaller and newly digitising economies that rely on Chinese and American technologies. In recent years, both countries have been working to gain an edge and expand their influence in regions like Africa, where internet penetration is rapidly shaping socioeconomic growth. For China, the ICT sector is a strategic entry point in its quest for global economic dominance. For context, ICT constitutes about 38.6 percent of China’s GDP. Beijing has also committed to positioning itself at the forefront of global technology innovation, as seen in its 14th 5-year plan (2021-2025) and President Xi Jinping’s speech at the last CCP conference. 

A recurrent discussion in African policy circles is the need for African governments to maintain agency in their relationship with both countries, and to navigate this complex digital ecosystem in a way that benefits them without subserving the agenda of either side of the digital geopolitical divide. A key concern, however, is whether non-alignment — which scholars have argued is a more pragmatic way for Africa to manage its foreign partnerships — is possible in an internet ecosystem mostly divided between the US and China. 

This piece examines how the US-China tech competition plays out in African countries. It is divided into two sections. The first part identifies 3 key areas in Africa’s digital ecosystem where China has been most active and where its activities intersect with Washington’s interest on the continent, namely: digital infrastructure, digital services, and digital education or tech talent development. The second section discusses the geopolitical implications of these activities on the African continent.

Full report here

About author: Ayantola Alayande is a researcher in digitalisation, innovation and the digital economy. He is currently Civic Innovation & Knowledge Consultant at Dataphyte. He can be reached on

Goloka analytics connects substantial data sets, community intelligence for developments and building the future of Africa.

The article is originally published on Dataphyte

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