The first US-Africa summit was held in Washington D.C. from August 4 to 6. With nearly 50 African heads of state invited to the gathering, and the ambitious plans for economy and trade as well as security cooperation, the summit has not only added an African edge to Barack Obama’s diplomacy, but also created an important political legacy for his presidency.
As the first African American to lead the United States, Obama’s assuming the US presidency once inspired excitement in Africa, similar to when former South African President Nelson Mandela was released from prison in the early 1990s. Yet, with his first term of office drawing to an end, a disappointed Africa found Obama, the “son of a man from Africa”, too preoccupied to attend to African affairs. Aside from his hasty July 2009 trip to Ghana and June 2013 visits to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, he engaged Africa very little. Compared with the African Growth and Opportunity Act put forward during Bill Clinton’s presidency, which was aimed at promoting African exports to the US; and the Millennium Challenge Corporation targeted at promoting American investments in Africa and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief during George W. Bush’s presidency, Obama’s first-term Africa-related score-sheet was less than impressive in the field of economic development, aside from the “breakthrough” in military deployment.
To take advantage of Africa’s rapid progress, to not miss the process of African renaissance and development that is full of opportunities and hope, as well as to catch up with emerging economies such as China in participating in African development, the US-Africa summit came into being.
To enhance the American presence and influence in Africa, the summit particular emphasised the economy and trade, as well as security. In economy and trade, the White House on August 5 announced a US-Africa economic and trade cooperation plan that is worth more than $33 billion, covering fields such as construction, clean energy, banking and information technologies. Among it, $14 billion comes from cooperation agreements signed by American enterprises, $12 billion from financial support for the Power Africa project the World Bank and Swedish government have promised, and the rest $7 billion from financing guarantee by the US government. In contrast to Sino-African trade’s upsurge from less than $100 billion in 2009 to over $210 billion in 2013, US-African trade shrank from over $100 billion in 2008 to more than $60 billion in 2013. The US needs to act and catch up. Obama told his African guests that currently merely 1 percent of American exports goes to Sub-Saharan Africa, and that the US needs to do much better. He said he hoped Africans buy more American goods, and Americans buy more African goods.
In security, American military and security actions in Africa have increased dramatically since Obama assumed the presidency. But the security outlook of Africa remains grim, and the US obviously has the most outstanding comparative advantage in this particular area. Obama declared on the last day of the summit that the US will increase input in peace-keeping in Africa, and help African countries upgrade their peace-keeping and rapid response capabilities. In the next three to five years, the US plans to invest $110 million to help African countries develop peacekeeping capabilities.
It is worth mentioning that, in the field of economy and trade, where China has comparative advantages, and in security, where the US has comparative advantages, both China and the US have displayed unprecedented openness. According to the Financial Times, China has invited the US to participate in fund-raising and development cooperation for infrastructure construction in Africa and other developing countries, such as the joint construction of a $12 billion dam and power plant in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Inga-3). Obama also stated at a press conference during the summit that the US would invite countries beyond Africa to join it in supporting peacekeeping in Africa, because “the entire world has a stake in the success of peacekeeping in Africa.”
It is thus evident that although the US-Africa summit did show an American intention to catch up and compete with China in Africa, it has also conveyed the message of strengthening collaboration with China and promoting African development and security together. In fact, both the US-proposed Power Africa and China’s increasing security cooperation with African countries demonstrated interest in catching up in each other’s realm of comparative advantages, which are fine starting moves for further exchanges and cooperation in the future. Besides, benign Sino-US competition is normal, benefits both parties (and Africa is glad to see such competition), is conducive to the growth of African industries, and will help Chinese and American enterprises improve their services. Competition helps to avoid monopoly and promote industrial growth, while also bringing consumers diverse options. Of course, China and the US need to make a joint effort to define a model of competitive cooperation that both parties endorse. At the same time, their competition and cooperation must follow the principle “Africa agrees, Africa dominates, and Africa is satisfied”, in order to facilitate African progress.
He Wenping is a senior research fellow with the Charhar Institute, and research fellow of the Institute of West Asia and Africa, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.