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Foreign Policy

An Important Step Forward: China-US Cooperation in Africa

Jul 17 , 2013

In the past few months, Africa has welcomed two leaders from the first and the second biggest economies in the world. After Chinese President Xi Jinping visited South Africa, Tanzania and the Republic of Congo in late March, US President Barack Obama also visited Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania in late June. And, whether by coincidence or by careful arrangement, the two leaders visited exactly the same number of African countries with exactly the same combination of English-speaking and French-speaking citizenry. This all reflects a high degree of consistency. People are wondering whether it is because “great minds thin alike”, or whether Obama’s goal in Africa is to counter China. 

As a matter of fact, the common feature of the two leaders’ visits is that both China and the US have realized the great development potential of the African continent. However the difference is that China realized this potential and the historic chance for strengthening China-Africa ties much earlier than that of the US. Actually, Africa has been high on China’s diplomatic agenda in the most recent decade. As earlier as 2000, China established the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Along with the release of the first White Paper on China’s Africa Policy in January 2006 and the first China-Africa Summit in early November 2006, which brought more than 40 African heads of state to Beijing, Chinese high-level officials including President Xi Jinping, his predecessor Hu Jintao, former Premier Wen Jiabao, other cabinet members and members of the Political Bureau have all been frequent visitors to Africa. As a result, trade between China and Africa has soared in the last decade, reaching a record high of over $200 billion in 2011 from a mere $ 10.5 billion in 2000, leading China to surpass the United States and to become Africa’s biggest trading partner since 2009. 

On the contrary, the US has long regarded Africa as a hopeless continent full of problems such as conflict, disease and famine,. Being the very first African-American President in the US and having Kenyan family roots, President Obama seems to have had no time for Africa during his first term in office, and spent only 20 hours in Ghana in 2009, which resulted in deep disappointment and dissatisfaction throughout Africa. Partly due to his election campaign’s need for wooing African-American voters for his second term, and the intention to pacify the increasing criticism of “losing Africa”, and perhaps also due to avoid being labeled as an African-American President who unfortunately has had “the least interest in Africa”, President Obama unveiled a new strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa in June 2012. The new strategy sets forth four strategic objectives in Africa, namely: strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth and strengthening trade and investment, advancing peace and security, and promoting opportunity and development. The U.S. now believes that “Africa’s economies are among the fastest growing in the world, with technological change sweeping across the continent and offering tremendous opportunities in banking, medicine, politics, and business.” 

With the change in mindset about Africa’s rise and the motivation of catching up with China’s pace in Africa, President Obama recently announced a $7 billion power initiative over five years to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa, and also pledged to host a US-Africa Summit next year in the United States. To a large extent, the US’ new focus on Africa’s infrastructure and establishment of a US-Africa Summit have been inspired by the FOCAC and China’s extensive engagement in Africa’s infrastructure industry. 

Clearly, the US and China’s approach of engaging with Africa is indeed quite different, but  Obama’s characterization of US interactions with Africa including goals of social and political development, whereas China more narrowly focuses on commercial benefits is false. Actually, it is no need to mention that one of the focus of Obama’s trip in Africa was to appeal and push American enterprises to “do business in Africa” and to firmly grasp the potential of Africa’s rising. As for China’s engagement in Africa, it is certainly too simple and too one-sided to say that China-Africa relations is mainly for commercial benefits. Apart from building many infrastructure projects such as dams, ports, railways and stadiums, China has also engaged in education and health areas, such as providing scholarships, technical training and malaria treatment. And even the economic interaction has also laid a solid foundation for social and political development. 

However, it should be pointed out that the US and China do have a big difference in military engagement and security interactions,. To uphold and abide by its “non-interference policy”, China’s involvement in Africa’s security issues has long been limited to taking part in the UN multi-national peacekeeping forces for missions in Africa, rather than setting up military bases and taking military actions like the US has been doing on the Continent. Since the US established the US Africa Command in 2007, it has accelerated its pace of gathering information, setting up military and drone bases and directly participating in attacking extremist forces and terrorism in Africa. This has generated unease and worries from African countries and African people.

It is also worthwhile to point out that Obama’s speech about China and other emerging countries’ entry into Africa is quite encouraging and can be seen as an important step forward for future US-China cooperation in Africa. This is quite unlike his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who made accusations against China’s so-called “new colonialism” during her visit to Zambia in June 2011, and then criticized China’s development and investment model in Africa as “extracting value rather than adding value”. President Obama made clear during his Africa trip that he sees no threat by the growing trade and investment in Africa by emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil and Turkey, etc. In Obama’s words, “I don’t feel threatened by it (China’s entry in Africa). I feel it’s a good thing. The more investment in Africa, the more the world’s least-developed continent can be integrated into the global economy”. 

Hopefully, it is not just some friendlier words, as it would be much better to see some friendlier actions taken by the US government in the future. 

He Wenping is a senior fellow with the Chahar Institute and a professor and director of the African Studies Section of the Institute of West Asian & African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

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