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Is US playing catch-up in Africa after China gains?

By Kennedy Jawoko
As the 49 African Heads of State return to their respective countries – after the three-day US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington D.C., the breaking news across Africa should be the $14-billion trade and investment pledged by private US firms.


 Concluding the three-day summit, President Barack Obama said, “Tens of thousands of American jobs are supported every time we expand trade with Africa.”
So, is the United States playing catch up in a region where China is gaining ground?
Some commentators from Africa agree, arguing that the summit is a belated attempt by the United States to respond to growing Chinese influence in Africa. Arthur Larok, director of Action-Aid Uganda – an organization that works to end poverty and injustice – believes that the presence of China in Africa gives Africa an opportunity to negotiate the best deal.
“The US is beginning to see that China means business in Africa,” said Larok, who’s currently a Draper Hills Fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and Rule of Law.
Larok’s observation is backed by official data by the U.S. Department of Commerce that put trade between the U.S. and Africa at about $85 billion per year, while China’s trade is worth more than $200 billion. This spring, Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang visited several African countries where he sought to boost trade.
Observers of China-Africa relations agree that China’s impact on Africa is one of the biggest global geopolitical shifts of the early 21st century. China is often described by African journalists as the ‘weapon of mass construction’ as it expands its footprint further into the continent. China is sucking oil and minerals from countries such as South Sudan, Angola, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, and turning them into manufactured goods that undercut traditional suppliers in the United States and Europe. Chinese state companies have largely bypassed the New York and London commodities exchanges and gone to the source of raw material.
China’s impact is clear from the international airports to the village store. I remember not so long ago Coca-Cola, which also announced this week that it plans to spend $5 billion in Africa over the next six years, was the only foreign product that reached every corner of the continent. Now it is Chinese products that reach everywhere. The $14 billion trade that was announced and the billions of dollars in U.S. aid are crucial to Africa’s economic aspirations, but the Chinese are popular with African leaders because they build things — infrastructure. And, if the lasting fruits of trade and investment are creation of permanent infrastructure such as ports, roads, dams, national TV and radio stations, airports, stadia and, something that the United States loathes, presidential palaces, then America will be playing catch up with China. The good news for the United States is that there are millions of ordinary Africans who value freedom of expression, good governance and rule of law, and see no contradiction between these values and economic growth.
Still, the challenge for the United States is that many African rulers also like the way in which China presents itself as a neutral, value-free outsider that wants simple relationships of trade and friendship with African governments. Many Africans see this as a mark of respect. Official Chinese websites, stress mutual friendship and cooperation, economic, cultural, social and educational.
The alternative that China offers African rulers is attractive. They point to the fact that China has brought more of its people out of poverty in the last decades, but without any freedom of expression or democracy. In theory that offers Africa an alternative development model. It is unlikely that any African country will follow China’s Communist route. It’s impossible to imagine China’s one-child policy making any headway in Africa, for example. But many of the African leaders who met with President Obama at the White House will continue to use China’s interest in Africa as leverage against the demands of the United States and its Western allies. African governments that are resistant to social and political reforms see China as a lifeline.
Can the United States salvage its relationship with Africa?
The answer is yes! Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame said in a recent interview with Bloomberg: “This [discussion] should have started much earlier. If things are done right, the relationship, the partnership between the United States and Africa, has the potential to bypass that relationship between Africa and Europe. Also the relationship between Africa and China.”
For now it appears enlightened African leaders know where the buck stops.
Jawoko is an international journalist and a visiting scholar at Stanford University.

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