Although the continent of Africa has 54 countries, the nation that received the most attention at last week’s U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C. was China. That’s because the U.S. is trying to catch up with and surpass the Asian superpower.
Africa has six of the top 10 fastest-growing economies: Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique, and Rwanda. From 2011-2015, Africa is expected to hold seven of the top 10 spots: Ethiopia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Congo, Ghana, Zambia and Nigeria.
Suddenly, instead of being viewed through the outdated prism of stereotypes – war, famine, disease, corruption – Africa is an attractive place to do business. That was evident when President Obama announced $33 billion in government and private sector investment in Africa – $12 billion in new commitments.
In a speech to nearly 50 African heads of state and top officials at the U.S.-Africa Summit, Obama said: “As president, I’ve made it clear that the United States is determined to be a partner in Africa’s success – a good partner, an equal partner, and a partner for the long term.”
The problem is that Africa already has a long-term partner – China.
While the U.S.-Africa Summit was the first such gathering of African leaders on U.S. soil, China held its fifth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing in 2012. At that conference of African leaders, China pledged to provide $20 billion a year over three years in foreign aid to deepen the Sino-African connection.
China is not a newcomer to Africa.
As I wrote last year in a series on China, the first trade exchanges between China and Africa are believed to have taken place during the Tang Dynasty [618-907]. China supported many African liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s.
It was sympathetic to and hosted such prominent African Americans as W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X and Black nationalists Robert F. Williams, Huey P. Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, and H. Rap Brown.
A report by the Rand Corporation titled, “China in Africa: Implications of a Deepening Relationship,” observed: “Most analyses of Chinese engagement with African nations focus on what China gets out of these partnerships – primarily natural resources and export markets. Some studies have described the impacts, positive and negative, that China’s aid and investment policies have had on African countries. However, few analyses have approached Sino-African relations as a vibrant, two-way dynamic in which both sides adjust to policy initiatives and popular perceptions emanating from the other.”
It explained, “African governments look to China to provide political recognition and legitimacy and to contribute to their economic development through aid, investment, infrastructure development, and trade. To some degree, many African leaders hope that China will interact with them in ways that the United States and other Western governments do not – by engaging economically without condescendingly preaching about good governance, for example, or by investing in high-risk projects or in remote regions that are not appealing to Western governments or companies. Some Africans aspire to replicate China’s rapid economic development and believe that their nations can benefit from China’s recent experience in lifting itself out of poverty.”
U.S. condescension was center-stage throughout the U.S.-Africa Summit.
Vice President Joe Biden, for example, called corruption “a cancer” and added, “Widespread corruption is an affront to the dignity of your people and a direct threat to each of your nations. It stifles economic growth and scares away investment and siphons off resources that should be used to lift people out of poverty.”
It didn’t help that Biden made another of his famous gaffes, referring to “the nation of Africa.”
Not everyone is pleased with the way China conducts business in Africa, comparing it to a neo-colonial relationship in which China has access to oil, gas and other natural resources in Africa. At the same time, China gains a large market for its goods and services.
To catch up with China, with invests twice as much as the U.S. in Africa, the Obama administration must pivot from its traditional role of providing foreign aid to Africa – with strings attached – to one of an investor/partner.
Many feel increased attention from the U.S. will be good for Africa.
“While the United States and China may not be strategic rivals in Africa, the two countries could increasingly compete commercially if American businesses become more engaged in African markets….” the Rand report stated. “…Such business competition would benefit African countries and advance U.S. interests. African governments might be able to negotiate more favorable commercial terms if they are not beholden to Chinese financing. African communities would benefit, as American companies are more likely than their Chinese counterparts to hire local laborers for skilled and unskilled positions, transfer industrial technologies to local partners, require humane working conditions, and contribute to initiatives that promote the health and welfare of their workforce. Such business practices would likely encourage Chinese enterprises to do the same so as to secure deals, compete in local labor and consumer markets, and enhance China’s image in Africa.”