AFRICANGLOBE – Both China and the US are trying to broaden and deepen their influence in Africa, with China dominating the continent economically, whereas the US is more pro-active militarily, Asia Times journalist Brendan O’Reilly said in a recent interview.
What does the US hope to achieve with the upcoming summit?
Brendan O’Reilly: Essentially the US is trying to broaden and deepen its influence in Africa right now. The US has many interests in Africa, especially economic, and what we see a lot now is politics and military. Right now the US troops are in a broad swath of the African nations from Mali in the west all the way through to the Central African Republic, Ethiopia into Somalia, and there is a major US military base in Djibouti now, and since 2008 the US has established the US Africa Command to coordinate military activities in Africa.
What are the key factors that attract foreign investors to Africa?
When it comes to the economic side, I think the most attractive thing is the natural resources in Africa and also the African people themselves. If you look at demographics, Africa is the youngest continent in the world, and “fortunately”, it is also the poorest – in a way there is an opportunity, and a lot of room for growth. And you see the US and other major powers, especially China, are trying to tap into this growth.
China and the United States are engaged in an ongoing rivalry for influence in Africa. Who do you think will emerge as the dominant player?
I think even if you look right now, China’s influence is greater in Africa, especially from the economic side. The US does roughly about 85 billion dollars a year in trade with Africa; China does 200 billion dollars in trade with Africa. So China is already dominating the continent economically, and I think that influence will only deepen.
How would you compare the different approaches that China and the US take in Africa?
There are several key differences. China is focusing more and more on the economic side, the only Chinese soldiers in Africa are there in UN peacekeeping forces, whereas the US is obviously more pro-active militarily. In 2011, there was intervention into Libya, for example. I think another key factor is the political factor. The US officials, including Barack Obama himself, make a lot of rhetoric about supporting human rights and good governance in Africa, but if you look at the realities on the ground, the US is still willing to do business with some unsavory regimes when it’s in US interests. China officially says they don’t care about the local governments in African countries, they say it’s a policy of non-intervention. This policy has been criticized by some Western observers and by some Africans but I think the US focus on human rights also opens up the US to criticism of hypocrisy, of saying one thing about human rights and doing another.
Which African nations are the priorities for China and the US?
I think a lot of it comes down to regions with many natural resources, specifically petroleum. So countries like Angola, Nigeria – these are on the radar of both the US and China. Of course the two countries take different approaches to Africa. Like I said before, the US is very much in a military effort in Africa, so you can see Nigeria is now suffering from the insurgency of the Boko Haram group in the North, US has troops on the ground trying to help Nigerian local forces to combat this, whereas the Chinese presence in Nigeria is mostly in the South, in the oil-producing regions.
What impact could this “Battle for Africa” have on the rest of the world? Do you think there are more risks or benefits for all parties involved?
It’s difficult to say. I think right now it is a cold conflict and actually there are some overlapping interests as well. Although the US and Africa are competing for influence in China, they also have strong common interests in avoiding things like transnational terrorism and generally promoting stability. Stability is good because it means there is less of threat of Islamic militants, whereas stability is good for Africa particularly because political stability can help to lead to economic growth, as Africans get richer, they can buy more Chinese products.
So there are risks and also potential benefits. Some African nations maybe are trying to play China and the US against each other or perhaps China and the US are also trying to use their political and economic influence to broaden their geopolitical goals. That being said, I think there are major risks of internal conflict, many African nations are suffering from internal insurgency and ethnic strife, and if the African leaders themselves can handle the relationships well, I think there is a lot of potential of growing mutual benefit.