Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Greater China
     Dec 7, 2011

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 democracy.

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 countries.

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 Africa.

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 the continent.

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 be emphasized."

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 indirectly."

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 projects.

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 continent. 

Continued 1 2  

Is China drinking its own Kool-Aid? 
(Oct 15, '11)

The myth of the 'China model' in Africa (Sep 14, '11)

Are Jews better off in Israel?

2. Clinton tests the Myanmar mystery

3. Nepal bends to China over Tibet

4. Is Kim the next challenge?

5. Afghanistan: Land triggers new conflicts

6. The shadow war in Syria

7. Arroyo holds cards in graft battle

8. The myth of great moderation

9. A new beginning for the United Nations

10. North Korea's new class system

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Dec 5, 2011)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110