China and the West in Africa

China has pumped billions in Africa recently

Stronger cooperation with Africa could increase China’s sphere of influence and bolster its attempts to redefine its relations with the rest of the world. This would be a dramatic change in the traditional patterns of Western dominance over African affairs and would diminish Western political and economic leverage over the continent, thereby constituting a major challenges to Western hegemony over the political, economic and development discourse in Africa and internationally.

However, while maintaining close cooperation with Africa, Beijing essentially views the West as far more politically and economically important than Africa. For instance, in the 1980s, after adopting a new course based on economic reform and reintegration into the global economy, the concentration on building up heavy industry, liberalising the agricultural sector, and intensifying efforts to create an export-led economic model, after the initial phase of reform and opening-up, meant that relations with African countries became less focused. During this period, China was committed to rebuilding partnerships with developed economies, particularly with Europe and the US. By the 1990s, this had achieved notable results, with a massive increase in foreign direct investment, most of it from these developed economies, from 1993 onwards. This phase was crowned by entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, after 14 years of negotiations.

As the Chinese economy grows, so also could its interests – like Japan’s – coincide increasingly with those of the West at the UN and global financial institutions. China seeks the West’s acceptance far more than it does Africa’s. Beijing’s larger interests are also likely to continue to coincide more with those of the West than with Africa’s, though Chinese economic rivalry is also likely to continue with the United States, France, Britain and other Western countries in the quest for Africa’s resources. This will be a complex relationship of cooperation and competition. The search for natural resources from many quarters is creating a more competitive environment in Africa. Other Asian and South American countries with rapidly growing economies are also pursuing access to oil and other natural resources in Africa.

It should also be noted that, though the West, particularly Washington, has been critical of China’s role in places like Sudan and Angola, there are increasing contacts and cooperation between America and Chinese officials on Africa – through a China-US dialogue that appear to have been helpful in efforts to deploy UN/AU peacekeeping force to Darfur in 2007. There has recently been a growing recognition from the West that China may have a contribution to make to Africa’s development challenges. Beijing has applied developmental methods to solving problems that are much closer to the situation of African countries.

Africa has for a long time been a primary source of natural resources for the European and American markets. China’s strategy is to access resources that have so far not been exploited because they were considered insignificant in size, geographically too remote or politically risky by Western companies. This strategy requires massive investments in mines, oil exploration and auxiliary infrastructure such as pipelines, roads, railways, power plants and power transmission lines. As a result, China’s engagement with African countries has often been portrayed as a threat to Western interests. There has been concern in some Western capitals that China is challenging American and European firms for strategic resources like copper and oil, and that Beijing is using corrupt means in engaging with Africa.

As it stands, the Chinese government seeks to strengthen its growing African relations through claims to legitimate development activity in Africa. This is through a combination of common positions, including its support for the Millennium Development Goals, and differences; a development in Africa discourse with Chinese characteristics. China also likes to remind Western governments for their primary obligations for development in Africa. At times, the Chinese government has appeared to want to jump on the bandwagon of ‘international’ development efforts while also participating in development as a means to enhance claims to responsible world status, further aspirations to leadership of the developing world and benefit from resource extraction. After the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), there are signs that China intends expanding development activities in Africa.

AFRICOM was setup to protect U.S. interest in Africa

American business is also hard-pressed to compete with what China calls its “non-interference policy” – an indifference to conducting business with political regimes that might be considered undemocratic. Giving a corporate marketing edge to a political position, one Chinese Minister asserted: ‘Non-intervention is our brand, like intervention is the Americans brand.’ It is interesting to note that China’s commitment to non-interference in African domestic affairs and its determination to build partnerships based on equality and mutual respect, are widely welcomed on the continent.

A major issue that is fundamental to the U.S. is the rise of China as a global economic power, rampaging through Africa, consolidating oil and trade agreements at a pace heretofore unseen. Economic forecasters predict China’s economy will surpass the U.S. by 2025. What makes this story remarkable is that for the first time since the end of colonial rule, a major power sees in Africa not a charity case, a landscape of endless need, but as an exceptional strategic and business opportunity.

As a result, the US is turning its diplomatic and military attention to Africa and as a rivalry to Chinese influence in Africa. It is quietly establishing military training and equipment links with a number of countries to secure future supply lines. The creation of the United States Africa Command (Africom) also reflects contemporary concerns in Washington about the United States’ sustained access to the dwindling global supplies of oil. Africa is now a region of vital importance to national security in the US .

The public must pause and reflect on how Africa has become a region of growing vital importance to US national interests. It is outdated and counterproductive to assume that Africa is simply the object of humanitarian concerns. The need for a broader approach exists even while the US should and does stand ready to answer Africa’s urgent humanitarian needs. Nevertheless, other newly emergent US stakes in Africa have become apparent: energy, terror and HIV/AIDS. As these concerns have grown in importance, Africa has become a more competitive environment, in particular with China’s rapidly escalating engagement and quest for Africa’s energy and other natural resources. These new realities challenge public thinking as well as the strategy of policy makers in the US. For the US, ‘Africa has been seen for centuries as a “Dark Continent”, but the darkness was our own ignorance. It is not what we don’t know that’s dangerous; it’s what we do know that’s not true. The public needs to understand that a purely humanitarian response that leans more towards charity than partnership will not achieve the desired results.

The US needs a more comprehensive policy to operate effectively in the increasingly competitive environment in Africa. A broader policy framework is needed to correct US intelligence and diplomatic weaknesses. It should also recognise the growing capacity of African leaders and institutions working to improve economic performance and governance, promote democracy and resolve conflicts. Finally, achieving a new, more comprehensive approach towards Africa must come from the president and the leaders of Congress. US and African interests can thus be effectively addressed by a sustained, coherent, broad-based policy and the commitment to providing the necessary opportunities and resources. A new chapter has begun in Africa, perhaps opening up opportunities for China and the US to find some common ground.

Debay Tadesse, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa