By Janeil Bamberg
Newly elected U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stated in his confirmation hearing that one of his goals is to compete economically with China in Africa. Elizabeth Economy, Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations believes this objective will be difficult given the enormous amount of trade and investment resources that China currently dedicates to Africa. China’s involvement with Africa has grown since 2001, the year China entered the World Trade Organization, and the country has recently surpassed all others to become Africa’s largest trade partner.
According to the U.S. Government Office of Accountability report on China and U.S. economic involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa, “Some U.S. officials and other stakeholders… have questioned whether China’s activities affect U.S. interests in the region.” The U.S. and China bring different approaches and agendas to their economic engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and this can be seen playing out in a number of ways.
The GAO report continues:
“U.S. goals have included strengthening democratic institutions, supporting human rights, using development assistance to improve health and education, and helping Sub-Saharan African countries build global trade. The Chinese government, in contrast, has stated the goal of establishing closer ties with African countries by seeking mutual benefit for China and African nations and by following a policy of noninterference in countries’ domestic affairs.”
The report also states that the U.S. and China both have had large trade increases with SSA in the past decade; both countries are mainly receiving petroleum imports from SSA but China also imports a vast amount of other natural resources, with China’s exports to Africa far exceeding those of the U.S. It notes that China doesn’t release much information on foreign assistance or government-sponsored loans in the region. It does, however, conclude that the U.S. concentrates on development and humanitarian assistance to SSA; in 2010 more than a quarter of its foreign economic assistance was channeled to the region.
If a cursory Google search can be at all illuminating, a search for “US Africa forum” yields on the first page results that include several organizations and U.S. government agencies that work on agriculture, business, investment and policy including strategic policy in Africa. “China Africa forum” on the other hand, yields organizations that, true to the GAO report statements, work on China-Africa policy, political exchange, economic and trade cooperation and cultural exchange, such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The U.S. may have a more diversified approach towards Africa in terms of its stated objectives and influence in the economic, political and social realms. That said, if the trade record is any indication, then China’s influence (at a minimum in the economic realm) is far beyond that of the U.S. at the present moment.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see what strategy Kerry and the Obama administration pursue to compete economically with China in Africa. In any event, the situation is a case of two large, powerful and influential governments pursuing growth through cooperation with smaller, fragile governments. In this sense, this kind of dynamic is not a great departure from the historical record of foreign powers in Africa. As a China Studies student I am excited to visit Kampala, Uganda this summer where I intend to study Sino-African and Sino-Ugandan relations in an endeavor to hone my understanding of these complex issues more thoroughly on the ground.
Jeneil Bamberg in an intern at the EastWest Institute’s New York Center.