by Ahmed K. Sirleaf
Is the Dragon Threatening the Eagle’s Lunch in Africa? America or China: who wins the New Scramble for Africa?
The growing influence of China in Africa poses significant threats to United States’ interests on the continent. Unless the U.S. moves fast, it will lose the influence war in Africa to the Chinese.
China’s burgeoning influence on the continent comes with serious consequences for America’s interests in Africa. National security, rule of law, human rights and democratic governance interests are at risk.
Undoubtedly, China is not new to Africa. However, it is evident today that China has made a strategic move to prioritize trade and foreign direct investments on the continent.
Since the mid 1990s, China’s influence in Africa has exponentially grown. In 2009 China surpassed the United States as Africa’s leading trading partner. China-Africa (exports and imports) totaled $127 billion dollars in 2010. This is in comparison to the U.S.-Africa trade value of $113 billion dollars during the same time period. While there are huge trade deficits between the U.S. and Africa, China’s trade balances with most African countries are virtually deficits free.
The simple explanation for the notable trade deficits between the U.S. and Africa can be attributed to the huge oil imports from Africa, while there are hardly any considerable exports from Africa into American markets. For example, in 2010, the U.S. imported about $85 billion worth of oil from African markets, while the U.S.’s total exports to the continent amounted to a mere $28 billion dollars.
The opposite is true with Sino-Africa trade and diplomatic relations. While America has trade deficit with Africa, China, had trade surpluses with most African countries. In Africa, China is not just interested in the extractive sector.
Contrarily, Sino-Africa investments have extended to apparel, textile, food and agro processing, retail ventures, fisheries, sea food farming, commercial real estate, transportation, construction, tourism, power plants, banking and financial services, telecommunications, higher education, to name but a few.
Of course, the two countries approach Africa differently. China sees Africa as a strategic interest for raw materials to fuel its manufacturing industries as well as for hydrocarbon fuels for its growing energy needs. The US is interested in issues of good governance and democracy. The U.S. believes that a prosperous Africa will encourage open market policies. This is all about ensuring that freedom and democracy flourish on the continent.
China adopts a policy of non- interference in which it does not attach any strings to its development aid or investment packages as long as African governments embrace China’s “one-China” policy. For instance, China does business with countries like Zimbabwe and the Sudan (despite human rights violations in Darfur, and Mugabe’s oppression of his people).
Furthermore, the Chinese practice of staffing infrastructure and construction projects with Chinese labor not only does not spur local capacity building but also drives local industries out of business.
In sum, China has encroached upon traditional areas of economic and diplomatic cooperation once coveted purviews of OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, including the United States.
For America, one of its recent strategies had centered on security for Africa: the so-called Africa Command (AFRICOM) was initiated to serve as a multifaceted initiative. AFRICOM had been designed as a conglomerate of military, security and humanitarian coordination unit solely for Africa from the United States. Aside from Liberia, however, no other African countries had been willing to host this U.S. military base, which was also meant to serve as counter to the war on terror in the region.
AFRICOM is currently based in Stuttgart, Germany instead of in Africa. It coordinates a number of U.S. interests in Africa, including U.N. peacekeeping operations, civilian and State Department projects, drones and counter terrorism operations on the continent. Drone operations in East Africa are a prime example.
Unless the United States moves quickly and adopts policies that would stop the rapid growth of China’s influence, it risks losing its influence in Africa. Losing influence in an increasingly critical region is tantamount to losing access to strategic interests in that part of the world.
Sirleaf is an independent Africa policy and conflict analyst, who holds an MA in International Law and a MPA in Public Leadership and International Policy Analysis from the University for Peace and the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org