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Foreign Policy

“Trust” is the Key Word for China-US Cooperation in Africa

Aug 06 , 2012

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now paying her 11-day visit to sub-Saharan Africa including Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi and South Africa. Apart from aiming at wooing African-American voters for the upcoming elections at home and pursuing the Obama administration’s new strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa unveiled in the middle of June, Clinton’s visit has also been widely interpreted by world media including the US media as well as the US scholars as to contain China’s influence in Africa. Not surprisingly, in her speech in Senegal, the first leg of her African tour, Clinton self-esteemed the US model in Africa as “adds value rather than extracts it” and warned African leaders about cooperating with countries that want to exploit the continent’s resources. Although without naming China, her implication is that China has been extracting Africa's wealth for itself.

This is not the first time that Clinton lashes out at China’s presence in Africa. In June last year, during her visit to Zambia, Clinton had made accusations against China's "new colonialism". In her recent tour of China's neighbors in early July, her criticism of China's development and investment mode are still fresh for our ears.

On the one hand, Clinton’s words are obviously not playing any constructive role for the discussion and strategic dialogue between the US and China on the possibilities and potential of China-US Cooperation in Africa. In the recent years, the general bilateral relationships between China and the US has gone through a lots of twist and turns due to the US weapon sales to Taiwan and the Tibet issue, etc. In the year of 2012, with the coming out of the US “pivot to Asia strategy” (now renamed as “rebalancing strategy”) and its increasing involvement in the South China Sea issue, China-US relationships is even decreasing to the lowest point in the past 3 decades. “Trust deficit” or “mutual strategic suspicion” between China and the US were the key conclusion words given in the recent published report jointly written by Prof. Wang Jisi from Peking University and Prof. Kenneth Lieberthal from the Brookings Institution, two leading scholars on China and the US relations study.

A sound and trust-based relationships between China and the US can serve as a solid foundation for China-US coordination and cooperation in Africa. Otherwise, it is extremely difficult and almost unlikely to push any substantive trilateral dialogue forward. In this sense, the above-mentioned Clinton’s remarks is better not be heard any more in the future.

On the other hand, as Prof. David Shinn from George Washington University said, Africa is an ideal location for the United States and China to reduce mutual suspicion and benefit African countries at the same time. Through moving forward, no matter how small the step is and how tiny the pilot project will be, the cooperative intention and goodwill can be released and in return can contribute for improving the US-China bilaterial relationships in general.

Different from Clinton’s remarks in Africa, the White House Deputy National Security Advisor Michael Froman clarified that the US hasn’t regarded China as a threat rather than a potential partner for promoting African development. “The US welcomes Chinese engagement in Africa” and “there is room for both China and the US in Africa”. After the wrap-up of the 5th Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 19-20th July, the US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell responded as saying, as China and Africa are increasingly engaging economically and in other areas, the US has been routinely discussing the ways with the Chinese government about increasing cooperation to address long-term development challenges facing many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It will be a bless for China-US cooperation in Africa if the above constructive official statements and scholar’s point of view became the mainstream idea in the US. Finger-pointing and blaming each other will do no good to the US and China bilateral relations and to the African development as a whole.

Actually, by taking a close look at the Obama administration’s new strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa and the five priority areas outlined by President Hu Jintao at the 5th FOCAC in Beijing, we can still find some important areas of convergence in US and China policy in Africa. The new US sub-Saharan Africa strategy sets forth four strategic objectives: strengthening democratic institutions, spurring economic growth, trade and investment, advancing peace and security, and promoting opportunity and development. And the five priority areas that China is going to focus in the coming three years are the following: increase the investment and finance, development assistance providing aiming at African people’s livelihood improvement, promoting African integration, strengthen people to people diplomacy and advancing peace and security. African security issue stands out as a potential area for the US-China-Africa trilateral cooperation.

Constrained by “non-interference policy”, China’s involvement in African security issue has long been limited in taking part in the UN multi-national peacekeeping forces for missions in Africa. However, with China’s increasing presence in Africa, China now can feel more and more impact from African security challenges. For example, the Libya war in 2011 forced the withdrawal of 35,000 Chinese personnel from that country. And the conflicts between various factions in Sudan led to the killing or kidnapping of some Chinese employees. These developments prove that Africa's security is closely related not only to local development, but also to the fate of Africa-based Chinese enterprises and their employees. Helping African countries create a peaceful and secure environment will benefit the continent's development. It will also serve the interests of China and be beneficial to peace and stability across the world. 

Comparing with China’s limited experience in African security area, the US has long been involved directly in the area. Especially with the establishment of the US Africa Command in 2007, it has accelerated its pace of gathering information, setting up small-scale military bases and directly participating in attacking extremist forces and terrorism in Africa.

China certainly won’t follow the US pattern for pursuing a military entry in Africa. With the consent of African countries, and also in order to meet the demand from African countries, China will increase the financial support to AU peacekeeping activities and create more training opportunities for African peacekeepers. And in some regional conflicts, China also can serve as mediator and give advice to help arrange the peace process.

In doing this, China and the US could first exchange intelligence and experience in conventional and unconventional security. They could also join efforts in helping Africa build up a strong peacekeeping force by cultivating each country's own comparative advantages in such areas as funding and training (the US) and weaponry (China's conventional arms are effective and affordable).

He Wenping is 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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