SPEAKING FREELY Obama steps into China's African shadow
By Narayani Basu
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US President Barack Obama arrived in Senegal on Wednesday for the first leg of a week-long trip to Africa. Moving on to South Africa for the weekend, he was scheduled to end his visit in Tanzania on Monday and Tuesday.
The trip is a bid by the United States to strengthen ties and improve investment opportunities. That much is clear in the statement released by the White House in May, which said that Obama intended to "reinforce the importance that the United States places on our deep and growing ties with countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including through expanding economic growth, investment and trade; strengthening democratic institutions; and
investing in the next generation of African leaders".
The question is - is it too little, too late?
Obama's trip comes a little over two months after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Africa. China may not be a rival that the US wants to name-check, but there is no doubt that the specter of Beijing's flourishing influence in the region is a vital subtext to the presidential visit.
Chinese investments in Africa have grown steadily over the years that the United States has been engaged in Asia and the Middle East. Currently, they pan across many sectors and are not confined to the state-owned companies. Several private Chinese firms have also invested heavily in Africa. For example, Huawei, a leading global telecom services provider, has invested US$1.5 billion and employs 4,000 workers in Africa alone. The past decade's trade figures also attest to China's growing ties with Africa, having grown from just $9 billion in 2000 to $200 billion in 2012. That is more than double the US trade for last year, which stood at $95 billion.
Africa is benefiting too. The rationale is simple enough - for countries desperate for aid and resource infrastructure, the interests of a rising superpower are always welcome, especially when, as is the case with Beijing, those interests come with large sums of money and infrastructure development. The latest figures from the International Monetary Fund underline the economic advantages for African countries. Five out of 10 of the world's fastest growing economies are in Africa, with South Sudan, Libya and Sierra Leone leading the way. China's influence is a major driver in the region's rise. Indeed, in purely economic terms, China has done more than enough to fulfill the expectations it had for its relations with Africa when it first entered the continent.
Not only is China the biggest trading partner of South Africa, the continent's largest economy, but it also has fairly substantial trade ties with Senegal and Tanzania, among other countries. This does not mean that it has been a smooth ride. China's relationship with certain African regimes has often been a source for international controversy, the prominent example being that of Chinese commitments in Sudan and Zimbabwe. In the wake of Xi's visit this year, there were rumblings of discontent from various leaders from African countries. In March, for example, Lamido Sanusi, governor of Nigeria's Central Bank, wrote an opinion article published in the Financial Times, in which he argued that Africa was willingly opening itself up to a new form of imperialism.
Further, Chinese resource diplomacy on the continent has been led by Beijing's drive to procure vital raw material and natural resources that are required for its own development. Hence, much of the intense diplomatic conflicts for oil involving the United States and China take place on the African continent. The case of Nigeria, Sudan and South Africa are prime cases in point. This was underscored by the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her tour of Africa in 2012, when she made the point that "the days of having outsiders come and extract the wealth of Africa for themselves ... should be over."
The reference to China was not thinly veiled, nor is the subtext to this visit particularly thickly shrouded. But the difference here is that Obama appears to be moving away from the previous US approach of assistance and aid and zeroing in on trade and investment. His entourage includes American CEOs and business leaders and the heads of the US Export-Import Bank, US Trade and Development Agency, and the Overseas Private Investment Cooperation.
Events on the president's Africa schedule also reflect the heavy tilt towards economics, as he was due to meet with leaders in banking and finance across Africa, make visits to power plants in Tanzania and take part in roundtables with African CEOs. The approach could be appreciated as a breath of fresh air, given the signs of growing wariness that some African countries and leaders are projecting vis-a-vis China. But this is not to say that the same said leaders have blind faith in the United States, whose previous moves in the region came with several tricky strings attached. Whether it's too little, too late for the US in comparison with China's march depends on how African leaders now to choose to play their cards.
Narayani Basu is a researcher with the China Research Program Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies, New Delhi, India.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.