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Foreign Policy

China, Africa and Implications for the United States

Jul 12 , 2012
  • David Shinn

    Adjunct Professor, George Washington University

China and the United States have surprisingly similar interests in Africa. Both rely increasingly on the continent for oil while China also imports large quantities of minerals. Both seek political support from Africa’s 54 countries, which constitute more than a quarter of the membership of the United Nations. Both see Africa as an increasingly attractive export market, although today the African countries collectively account for a tiny percentage of each country’s global trade.

China also wants to expand the “one China” principle throughout Africa; four African countries recognize Taiwan. This is not an American interest. For its part, the United States wants to minimize the impact in Africa of terrorism, narcotics trafficking, international crime, piracy and money laundering so they do not harm US interests in Africa or the homeland. While these are increasingly becoming Chinese interests, they have not yet reached the level of US interest. The United States also seeks to continue naval access to African ports and maintain the ability to overfly and land military aircraft. This is not yet an important interest for China.

There is considerable potential for China-United States commercial competition in Africa, a feature of the relationship that has been won overwhelmingly by China in recent years largely because it has worked harder and its state-owned companies have significant advantages over American private sector companies. Chinese companies often move into African countries as part of a package deal supported by the government. As a result, Chinese companies have cornered the market on large infrastructure projects, made significant inroads in the telecommunications sector, and are now challenging in banking. 

Chinese commercial competition is not unique to Africa. American success on the continent will require a greater effort by the private sector and more support by the US government, including more financing from the Export-Import Bank. Interestingly, oil is not an area where China has seriously challenged the United States. American and Western oil majors entered Africa long before China arrived. They have also maintained technological superiority over the Chinese companies. In addition, oil is fungible commodity; whoever has cash can buy it.

From the US government perspective, the most troubling aspect of China’s presence in Africa is its unwillingness to encourage better governance and human rights practices in a continent where too many countries require significant improvement in these areas. This is a hallmark of US policy in Africa, although there are some inconsistencies in the way Washington has approached the issue across the continent. China has far more influence than the United States in countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe but has chosen because of its non-interference policy in a country’s internal affairs to eschew encouragement of more democratic practices. 

There are also important areas of convergence in US and China policy in Africa. Both countries seek political stability and an end to terrorism. Tactically, there are differences in the approach to political stability. China emphasizes economic development and a decrease in poverty levels.

While the United States strongly supports these objectives, it also presses for improved governance and human rights practices. While China is anxious to combat terrorism, it seems to be skeptical about some US practices such as heavy reliance on a military response, including occasional missile and drone attacks in the case of al-Shabaab in Somalia.

On the other hand, the United States and virtually everyone praise China’s participation in six of the seven current UN peacekeeping operations in Africa. China provides about 1,500 military and police personnel (primarily engineers, medical and logistics). This is a larger number than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council and compares with about 30 from the United States, which does  provide about a quarter of the funding for these operations. The United States and China collaborated in building barracks for UN peacekeepers in Liberia. China has also worked cooperatively with the United States and other countries in combatting Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden where China has assigned two frigates and a supply ship since 2008.

An area that cries out for US-China cooperation is development assistance. Both countries provide important anti-malaria assistance to Africa without the benefit of collaboration. The treatment of neglected tropical diseases such as hookworm and schistosomiasis that each afflicts 200 million Africans is an obvious area for cooperation. Another area is pandemic preparedness. Both countries have unique experience and expertise that if combined could work to the advantage of African countries.

The United States and China have strong domestic agricultural programs, albeit based on different operating principles. Both countries also have significant experience in aiding African agriculture, which desperately needs revival in many countries. Some 60 percent of the African labor force works in agriculture and is still not able to grow enough food to feed its people.

A number of African governments fear that the United States will use cooperation with China to attach political conditions to its development assistance and, as a result, they discourage China from pursuing this idea. This response is short-sighted. From an African perspective there may be an advantage in encouraging China-US competition for commercial contracts and trade. Competition is, however, largely irrelevant when it comes to development assistance for most African countries. Unfortunately, China seems to have accepted the African argument.

Africa is an ideal location for the United States and China to reduce mutual suspicion and benefit African countries at the same time.

David Shinn is an adjunct professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, co-author of “China and Africa: A Century of Engagement”, and former US ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.

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