Page 1 of 2 America vs China in Africa
By Francis Njubi Nesbitt
China's imminent replacement of the West as the dominant international economic
and political force in Africa epitomizes the most dramatic shift in geopolitics
since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet the United States and Europe,
Africa's traditional trading partners, seem incapable of responding to the
challenge and retaking the initiative. Instead, their response has been to
wring their hands in despair and make ineffectual noises about human rights and
A recent Senate hearing on the implications of China's role in Africa, for
instance, concluded that the United States is ceding both its economic and
political leadership in Africa. Led by Senator Chris Coons, the panel urged the
United States to
respond by expanding trade and investments in Africa while defending its
democratization agenda. This is a tall order, however, considering that the
Obama administration's top foreign policy priority in Africa is counter
terrorism - a policy that undermines both the trade and human rights agendas.
China has already overtaken the United States as the continent's main trading
partner. According to David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Burkina Faso and
Ethiopia, China surpassed the United States as Africa's main trading partner in
2009. Testifying at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee on African Affairs
meeting on November 1, Shinn estimated that China's trade with African totaled
$127 billion in 2010, a 40% increase from the previous year, compared to $113
billion for the United States. Today, the energy sector accounts for over 70%
of China's trade with Africa. China also imports 30% of its oil from African
Senator Coons said at the hearing that China's rise in Africa is "truly
staggering". Its trade and investment in Africa grew by 1,000% between 2000 and
2010, and its growth outpaced that of the United States by over 100% last year.
The Chinese have focused on critical infrastructure projects such as building
refineries, ports, roads, bridges, airports, and railroads.
These projects are funded by concessional loans, some of which are
interest-free for up to 20 years. Shinn noted that these include recent
agreements with Angola for about $14.5 billion, Ghana for $13 billion, and the
DRC for $6.5 billion. In return, the Chinese receive access to natural
resources such as oil and rare minerals needed for the production of laptops,
smartphones, and flat-screen televisions.
Scramble for Africa's resources
China is not the only challenge to the West's dominance in the scramble for
Africa's resources. Other emerging economies such as India, Russia, Brazil, and
Turkey are all investing heavily in Africa. Middle Eastern countries are also
leasing large tracts of land in eastern Africa to grow food crops. India and
several European countries are also eyeing Africa's abundance of arable land
and water as a solution to their growing food deficits. Iran and Turkey are
increasing their business ties with Islamic nations in the Horn and North
The trend, therefore, is clear: the second scramble for African resources is in
full swing. The difference between the first and second scrambles is that the
first one involved European powers. Today, there are a multitude of new players
led by the United States and China, but also including Brazil, India, Turkey,
Iran, and the Persian Gulf States.
Brazil's trade with Africa, for instance, increased fourfold from 2002 to $20.6
billion in 2010. Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff announced a new initiative
to increase economic ties with Africa after touring the continent earlier last
month. This new initiative builds on former president Luiz Inacio Lula da
Silva's calls for renewed engagement with Africa. During his tenure, Silva
visited 25 African countries and doubled the number of Brazilian embassies on
Africa's new partners recognize that the continent provides immense
opportunities for trade and investment. Six of the world's 10 fastest-growing
economies over the last decade are in Africa. The United Nations Human
Development Report indicated this year that Africa's progress in human
development (access to education, health care, food, etc) could outpace that of
every other region in the next decades.
Africa's immense mineral wealth is dwarfed only by its potential. Geologists
believe that three quarters of its reserves are yet to be discovered. The
continent already has 40% of the world's gold and over 85% of its platinum and
chromium. It is also the top producer of vanadium, cobalt, diamonds, and
chrome, and its iron ore reserves are staggering. It has 60% of the world's
uncultivated arable land.
Africa is destined to play a major role in China's food security as demand for
food threatens to outstrip supply. In a recent paper published by Standard
Bank, researchers Simon Freemantle and Jeremy Stevens argue that China is
facing a food deficit in the near future. It is unable to produce sufficient
food domestically to feed its burgeoning population.
As a result, Chinese officials are eyeing Africa's huge agricultural potential
and building relations with friendly countries, such as Mozambique, where China
has invested heavily in agricultural development. These investments produce
crops such as soybeans, tobacco, coffee, tea, and cotton that are in demand in
China. The researchers conclude that "managed well, partnerships with China can
be meaningful. However, domestic food security must be placed first. Then, and
leveraging Chinese aid, crops suited for China's demand dynamics can and should
Africa: patient or partner
Faced with these momentous changes in geopolitics, the West seems unwilling, or
unable, to respond. The United States and Europe seem stuck in neocolonial
perspectives that continue to paint Africa as an impoverished backwater that at
most deserves sympathy and at worst contempt.
They continue to treat Africans as patients rather than partners. At the
subcommittee hearing, for instance, Coons estimated that 70% of the US
government's investments in Africa are directed at health programs to combat
HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases. "We may be winning the war
on disease but losing the battle for hearts and minds in Africa," Coons told
the panel. Although focusing on health is laudable, limiting government
engagement solely to health is not. Many Africans consider this a paternalistic
approach that ignores priorities of African governments like roads, railroads,
oil refineries, ports, and other long-term infrastructure development projects.
In Liberia, for instance, the newly reelected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,
who came to power in 2006 after a decade of civil war, said that her top
priority was rebuilding roads. She was unable to raise funds from Western
nations and the World Bank so she turned to the Chinese, who immediately agreed
to fund the project.
Other examples include Ghana, where China is building an alumina refinery, and
Chad and Niger, where it is building oil refineries. Angola also turned to
China after its efforts to secure financing for infrastructure development from
the West failed. In all these cases, traditional trading partners in Europe and
the United States refused to even consider providing loans and expertise for
these industrial projects. As Steven Hayes, the president and CEO of the
Corporate Council on Africa, told the hearing: "Few US banks will finance
companies seeking to do business in Africa."
Thus these partnerships with China offer African countries opportunities for
industrialization that have remained a distant dream since independence. Steven
Hayes told the hearing that the Chinese have "helped Africa perhaps more than
any [other] nation has helped Africa in any ten-year period directly or
Hayes argues that the increased competition for strategic minerals has raised
commodity prices and thus national incomes. By investing in long-term
development and industry, the Chinese model allows African countries to
generate income to repay the loans and avoid accumulating unsustainable debts.
China's soft power
China has longstanding political relations with many African countries. These
relations stretch back to the 1950s and the Maoist period, when China offered
socialist countries ideologically motivated aid for infrastructure projects
such as railroads, stadiums, government buildings, and other development
In the early 1970s, for instance, the Chinese helped build the ambitious
Tanzania-Zambia (TAZARA) railroad, designed primarily to export copper from
landlocked Zambia to Tanzania's Indian Ocean port of Dar-es-Salaam. During the
Cold War, Sino-African relations were defined by shared goals such as
South-South cooperation and support for anti-colonial and liberation movements
in eastern and southern Africa.
In the 1980s, Chinese leaders began to reevaluate their ideology-driven
relations with African countries. As China continued its modernization process
in the mid-80s, international relations became more pragmatic. By the 1990s
these relations were re-centered to focus on partnerships in trade and
investment rather than ideology.
Today, China has diplomatic relations with, and embassies in, 50 African
countries. It emphasizes personal relations at the highest levels. China's
president Hu Jintao has visited Africa six times. The premier and foreign
minister make annual visits to multiple African countries, and the Communist
Party regularly invites African leaders to Beijing. During his 2006 tour of
Africa, for instance, Premier Wen Jinbao emphasized that China was seeking
partnerships based on equality and noninterference in the affairs of other
countries. In contrast, the president of the United States and his vice
president rarely visit African countries.
President Obama has only visited Africa twice since 2008. There is very little
personal contact at the presidential and cabinet levels.
This diplomatic offensive is partly motivated by China's need for allies on the
international stage. African states have significant voting power in
international organizations such as the UN, the World Trade Organization, and
the World Health Organization. As early as 1971, for instance, the African bloc
at the UN helped transfer the Chinese seat at the UN Security Council from
Taiwan to the People's Republic of China.
China also sought and received support from some African countries on the UN's
human rights committee when the issue of Tibet emerged in 2008. China continues
to seek African counties' support to advance its international agenda of
marginalizing Taiwan and countering Western hegemony and criticism of its
human-rights record at home and abroad.
Chinese officials estimate that they have provided scholarships to 18,000
African students from 50 countries and sent 700 teachers to 33 countries since
1949. Since 2009, the Chinese government has offered 4,000 scholarships to
African students every year. The Chinese government has sponsored the
establishment of over 20 Confucius Institutes at universities around the