US, China Come Together Over Africa (Sort Of)
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

US, China Come Together Over Africa (Sort Of)


Over the weekend the U.S. and China sought to downplay that they are locked in a fierce competition for influence in Africa.

During a press gaggle on Air Force One while en route to South Africa, President Barack Obama told reporters that the U.S. and China are not engaged in a Cold War on the continent. When asked how the U.S. can compete with China in the region, Obama respond:

“I think it’s a good thing that China and India and Turkey and some of these other countries — Brazil — are paying a lot of attention to Africa.  This is not a zero-sum game.  This is not the Cold War.  You’ve got one global market, and if countries that are now entering into middle-income status see Africa as a big opportunity for them that can potentially help Africa.”

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Similarly, an editorial in Xinhua, a Chinese state-run paper, rebuked “Western observers” who viewed Obama’s decision to visit South Africa and Tanzania so soon after Chinese President Xi Jinping did as evidence of Beijing and Washington’s struggle for influence in sub-Saharan Africa.

“This mentality belongs to the past,” the editorial said. “It results from the West's biased perception of China's role in Africa. It also misses the bigger picture in which Beijing and Washington, instead of being competitors undermining each other's efforts, can actually work as partners in promoting Africa's development.”

Later in the piece, the editorial board noted, “For Africa, it is really a blessing that the top leaders of both the United States and China have come to the continent within three months. Washington and Beijing, with their distinct economic advantages and policy priorities, can be partners in fostering peace and development on the world's least developed continent.”

Yet even while offering these upbeat assessments, there were signs of the competitive nature that many media outlets, including The Diplomat, have noted.

For example, immediately after denying that a Cold War existed with China over Africa, President Obama noted that one advantage America holds over Beijing in the region “is our values, our approach to development, our approach to democracy remains one that is greatly preferable to a country like Senegal.”

The U.S. President further opined, “In my discussions, a lot of people are pleased that China is involved in Africa. On the other hand, they recognize that China’s primary interest is being able to obtain access for natural resources in Africa to feed the manufacturers in export-driven policies of the Chinese economy.” 

Interestingly, this was preciously one of the charges of malice the editorial at Xinhua charged Western observers of holding.

“The West, especially the United States, tend to see China as a voracious industrial giant only interested in extracting Africa's natural resources to support its own economic development. They have never fully grasped the real influence of China's extensive investment and aid efforts in Africa.”

In fact, the Obama administration has long portrayed China’s involvement in Africa as malign and geared towards natural resource extraction. In a speech in Senegal in 2012, for instance, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said America’s engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa was aimed at promoting “a model of sustainable partnership that adds value rather than extracts it.”

Although Clinton did not mention any country by name, the implication was not lost on China. Two days later, a Xinhua article appearing under the headline “U.S. plot to sow discord between China, Africa is doomed to fail,” shot back at the U.S. Secretary of State.

 “Whether Clinton was ignorant of the facts on the ground or chose to disregard them, her implication that China has been extracting Africa's wealth for itself is utterly wide of the truth,” the article said.

This wasn’t the first objectionable comment Clinton had made about China’s involvement in Africa. During a previous trip in 2011, Clinton had similarly stated— again, without singling out any one country— that the U.S. did not “want to see a new colonialism in Africa. We want, when people come to Africa and make investments, we want them to do well, but we also want them to do good. We don’t want them to undermine good governance.”

Despite the frequency with which Washington might assert that China’s relations with Africa are based wholly on resource extraction, this view is overly simplistic at best. Indeed, China is helping Africa to develop significantly in many ways, such as infrastructure development.

For example, at an African Union conference in May, Hailemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and the chairman of the AU noted that the neglect of infrastructure development has arrested growth on the continent for years. He then stated, “In this regard, I wish to take this opportunity to express my deepest appreciation to China for investing billions in this sector to assist us in our development endeavors.”

Indeed, aidData and the Center for Global Development (CGD) recently unveiled a database on China’s official development finance to Africa that was compiled using open source media. When first released, the researchers had found that between 2000 and 2011, China had pledged US$75 billion on 1,673 projects in 50 African countries. Of these, 1,422 have reached the commitment, implementation, or completion stage. As some noted at the time, this was roughly the amount of official finance the U.S. had sent to Africa at the time.

Although some of this was used to build prestige projects like sports stadiums (a lot of fireworks too oddly enough), much of it was used for development. And, importantly, in some ways China is better equipped to help develop Africa given the expertise it gained in recently developing its own country.

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