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Foreign Policy

China and America in Africa

Jul 20 , 2012
  • Zhang Chun

    Senior Fellow, Shanghai Institutes for Int'l Studies

With China’s rapid economic growth since 1979, the scope and scale of the Sino-American relationship have expanded significantly. In other words, this relationship is now far beyond bilateral, but is also multilateral in nature. We have witnessed the introduction of so many additional elements; Africa is just one of them, the all-concerned 5th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) is the latest evidence.

However, the African factor up to this point, hasn’t produced value added to this relationship, when it probably could have. The reality is that Chinese involvement in Africa makes America more skeptical and nervous about China’s strategic goals and future development orientation. The reasons are certainly diverse, but three of the most important are psychology, politics, and economics.
Psychologically, there is a lack of strategic trust between China and America, even though both sides have called for measures to build confidence for years. Based on ideological prejudices, Americans never accept that China will behave similarly and accuse China harming their efforts on good governance and human rights in African continent. In terms of those behaviors similar or even identical to those of the U.S., most explanations rely on the “national interests” logic that China has chosen an expedient or pragmatic strategy; Sudan and South Sudan are the cases to the point. Thus, the lack of cooperation in Africa between two countries is a natural and logical consequence.
Politically, there is low confidence in China’s resolution to follow a path of peaceful development. This claim, to a great extent, is understood by both U.S. academic and policy communities as a kind of propaganda, despite the fact that has China embraced it as national strategy. In Africa, this logic is exemplified by the relationship between China and some “rogue” states, like Sudan or Zimbabwe. However, as Professor Ngaire Woods from University of Oxford points out, the evidence does not fully bear out the ‘blind support for rogue states’ critique. Meanwhile, many countries have diplomatic relations with these “rogue” states.
From an economic perspective, there is a sense of inevitable competition between China and America in Africa, especially in terms of oil and gas, and other natural resources. Africa is a potential market and a massive natural resource pool, for both China and America. According to this line of U.S. thinking with China’s rapid economic growth, Chinese appetite for African natural resources will clash with America’s sooner or later, no matter how big the economic pie will be in Africa.
With such factors shaping perspective, America remains cautious toward China’s increasing presence in Africa with a strategy of “preparing for competition, working for cooperation”.
The ambition of this strategy is to win this competition through three means. The first is to criticize China’s practice publicly, as Secretary Hillary Clinton did last July, when she called China a neo-colonialist power in Africa. The second is to strengthen U.S. policy tools in Africa, for example, creating AFRICOM, reorganizing USAID, extending the AGOA and PEPFAR, and integrating all related agencies. And the final tactic is to cooperate and coordinate with other parties, either countries such as India, the EU, or Japan, or multilateral organizations like the IMF, World Bank, and OECD among others to counterbalance Chinese influence in Africa.
The more realistic goal is to influence the future development of China-Africa relations, or at the very least, to know what China is doing and will do in Africa, through so-called trilateral or even multilateral cooperation. Joining with the European Union, the U.S. has called for trilateral cooperation with China to discuss African affairs. By now there have been several such talks in the form of track 2.0 dialogues, and still some new initiatives are under consideration. America hopes China will join multilateral dialogues in a variety fields, such as, development assistance, extractive industries, transparency of investment, good governance, just to name a few.
The reality is always in between. The current interaction between China and America in Africa is actually both competition and cooperation. Two countries compete in the fields such as natural resources with oil and gas at the core, market share, and development assistance; however, this competition is limited at country level but not at the continental level, with Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Nigeria, and some others, as the key. And the two parties cooperate in areas like poverty eradication, healthcare, climate change mediation and adaptation. In other words, China and America compete when national interests clash; and cooperate when human common fates are under threat.
Thus, the future is perhaps not as bleak as many American analysts anticipate. According to Amb. William M. Bellamy, director of Africa Center for Strategic Studies, National Defense University, successful cooperation in Africa will provide positive payoffs for the whole China-Africa relations. But how?
The most important thing is to improve and strengthen strategic trust. There are two ways of doing so: a top-down approach requires both parties to extend and deepen high-level exchanges, like the five rounds of Talks on African Affairs between two parties. A bottom-up approach, strongly suggested by former Assistant Secretary for Africa Affairs Constance B. Newman, requires nurturing cooperation on the ground between USAID missions and their Chinese counterparts and American foundations with Chinese companies, providing the U.S. and China “best practices” and “good habits” of cooperation and mutual trust.
The U.S. and China should also build confidence in their capacity to find ways for cooperation. Even with great political obstacles, China has started cooperation with UK Government Department for International Development (DFID), and Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in Africa. China has cooperated with multilateral institutions like IMF, World Bank, UNDP, and WHO in Africa as well. Thus, China has experience in cooperating and habits; and this is certainly true of the U.S. side because it is the primary sponsor of many multilateral organizations. With potential great compatibilities of two parties’ efforts in Africa, it is an area with bright prospects for cooperation.
To promote cooperation on the ground is also of high value. Because of the diversification of interests and actors of both sides in Africa, there are many ways to start working together, such as programs between companies, or governmental agencies, or through public-private partnerships. For example, in the field of health care, China has an extensive medical team and has built many hospitals and clinics on the continent, but we’re facing challenges of staffing, medicines, and equipment. Dialogue on how to provide staff training, capability building, and even some hard infrastructure, has great potential for China-U.S. cooperation.
Zhang Chun is a Senior Fellow, Deputy Director of Center for West Asian and African Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies 
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