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United States and China in Africa: Advancing the Diplomatic Agenda

United States and China in Africa: Advancing the Diplomatic Agenda

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It is important to look at U.S.-China interaction in Africa from the optic of statements by senior U.S. officials. These statements began in 2005 and generally reflect a desire to engage with China in Africa in a positive way.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivers her opening statement at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, September 5, 2012

There have been, however, occasional expressions of concern, criticism, and caution. At the same time, the official statements rarely reflect the strident expressions of concern about China’s activities in Africa that are often heard in the American media. Let’s look at the statements chronologically. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Michael Ranneberger, told the House Africa Subcommittee in July 2005: “China’s growing presence in Africa is a reality, but it can increase the potential for collaboration between the United States and China as part of a broader, constructive bilateral relationship. China should have many of the same interests in Africa as the United States, based, among other elements, on our shared reliance on a global oil market, shared desire to diversify sources from the Middle East and shared concern over volatile oil prices.”

In remarks before the National Committee on U.S. China Relations in September 2005, Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, addressed China’s role in the wider global community. Although not referring specifically to Africa, he stated that “it is time to take our policy beyond opening doors to China’s membership into the international system: we need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder in that system.” The concept of China as a responsible stakeholder in the international system became the watchword throughout the Bush administration.

Following talks with counterpart Chinese foreign policy officials in Beijing, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, commented in December 2005 that she did not believe “China’s interest or engagement in Africa is in direct competition to the United States.” She added that “it would be easy, but mistaken, to consider China an adversary in Africa.” She acknowledged, however, that there are countries in Africa such as Sudan where U.S. and Chinese policies diverge.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James Swan commented at Columbia University in February 2007: “For the Chinese, there are three primary interests: access to resources, access to markets, and securing diplomatic allies. None of these is inherently threatening to U.S. interests. We do not see involvement, economic or diplomatic, in Africa as a zero-sum game for the U.S. and China. The important thing is to encourage China to become involved in Africa in a way that supports international norms, rather than subverts them.”

On a visit to Ghana in 2008, President George W. Bush said China and the United States could pursue opportunities in Africa without stoking rivalry. He added: “I don’t view Africa as zero sum for China and the United States. I think we can pursue agendas without creating a great sense of competition. Do I view China as a fierce competitor on the continent of Africa? No I don’t.” James Swan added in April 2008 that “the challenge for the U.S. is how to manage our relationship with China—not as a new player in Africa, because it is not—but as a more active and potentially influential player.”

At a Senate Foreign Relations Africa Subcommittee hearing on Africa in June 2008, James Swan and Thomas J. Christensen, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, testified: “In general, we see China’s growing activity on the continent as a potentially positive force for economic development there, which is a goal we share with China and many others. As President Bush has said, we do not see a ‘zero-sum’ competition with China for influence in Africa. Nor do we see evidence that China’s commercial or diplomatic activities in Africa are aimed at diminishing U.S. influence on the continent.”

In October 2008, Jendayi Frazer, following meetings with Chinese counterparts in Beijing, said there may be opportunities for the United States and China to cooperate in building Africa’s infrastructure and its agriculture and health sectors. At the same time, she expressed concern about China’s lending practices in Africa as possibly undermining efforts to insure that Africa does not “reaccumulate” unsustainable debt.

We next move to the Obama administration. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson spoke off the record to representatives of Western oil companies in Lagos, Nigeria, in February 2010. In response to a question from one of the participants on the relative influence of China and the United States in Africa, Carson responded that “the United States does not consider China a military, security or intelligence threat. China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals. China is not in Africa for altruistic reasons. China is in Africa for China primarily.”

During a visit to Zambia in June 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked whether she believed China is a model for governance. She responded: “In the long-run, medium-run, even short-run, no I don’t.” She added: “We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave. And when you leave, you don’t leave much behind for the people who are there. We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa.” Not surprisingly, the reference to “new colonialism” struck a raw nerve in China and, in fact, was an unfortunate choice of words. One can make the case that China engages in mercantilist practices in Africa, but colonialism implies complete control over African governments. China simply is not doing that.

Following a visit to Beijing in September 2011, Vice President Joseph Biden addressed the China-United States relationship in a New York Times oped. While he was not referring specifically to U.S.-China interaction in Africa, his conciliatory remarks contrast with those three months earlier by Secretary Clinton. Biden said: “I remain convinced that a successful China can make our country more prosperous, not less. As trade and investment bind us together, we have a stake in each other’s success. On issues from global security to global economic growth, we share common challenges and responsibilities—and we have incentives to work together.”

Speaking a few days later in Washington, the Commander of AFRICOM, General Carter Ham, noted that China is stepping up its role as arms supplier to Africa, which he welcomed because it contributes to counterterrorism efforts. As U.S. resources for Africa diminish, he suggested this is an encouraging trend and does not constitute military competition between the United States and China.

Earlier today at this conference, Johnnie Carson noted that while the United States and China have different economic approaches to Africa, the two nations are not engaged in monumental resource competition. The United States looks forward to working with China in collaboration with Africa and Washington does not view Chinese and American engagement in Africa as a zero sum game.

Areas for Possible U.S.-China Cooperation in Africa

The West, due in large part to budgetary constraints, is holding steady or even scaling back in Africa while China continues to press forward on all fronts. Chinese influence grows while Western influence is static and, in some cases, on the decline. This is not necessarily a permanent trend, nor is it reason to eschew U.S.-China cooperation in Africa. Although there are areas where U.S.-China polices in Africa are significantly different such as human rights, democratization, aid conditionality, corruption, tactics for countering terrorism, etc., there are other areas where U.S.-China interests are similar.

Both countries tend to favor political stability and the status quo, although China is more committed to the status quo than the United States. Both countries encourage African economic development, although the policies for achieving development are often different. Both countries want to defeat terrorism, although the preferred tactics for countering terrorism in Africa are not necessarily the same. Both countries are supportive of UN and African Union peacekeeping operations in Africa. The United States pays more of the costs while China provides far more peacekeepers.

Both countries seek access to African raw materials, particularly oil. This need not become a competitive situation although growing demand by both countries contributes to driving up the price of these commodities.

There are two major challenges to U.S.-China cooperation in Africa. First, there are long-standing suspicions between the United States and China motivated in large part by different philosophies toward governance. Second, many African countries fear that any effort by the United States and China to collaborate in Africa constitutes an effort to gang up on them. These countries would rather play China off against the United States in order to obtain advantage. They fail to distinguish that there are areas where China and the United States can cooperate to the benefit of the African country in question. Earlier today, Ian Taylor from the University of St. Andrews elaborated on all of these challenges.

I also appreciate the sobering analysis yesterday by Yun Sun, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, that China is not interested in cooperating with the United States in Africa. If she is correct, then what follows is not relevant. But Colonel Tom Shephard at the U.S. Army War College suggested today that where U.S. and China’s interests in Africa overlap, there can be cooperation. I subscribe to this view. Once these hurdles are overcome, there are a number of areas where the United States and China can collaborate, perhaps in combination with other non-African countries. UN and African Union peacekeeping operations are obvious candidates. There has already been some China-U.S. cooperation in the UN peacekeeping operation in Liberia.

The health sector is another good choice. China is constructing thirty malaria treatment centers in Africa and providing antimalarial drugs such as artemisinin. USAID supports a holistic program that includes insecticide-treated bed nets and the President’s Malaria Initiative has a goal of reducing mortality by half in target countries.

Both countries have expertise in treating neglected tropical diseases where their experience and strengths could be combined. Hookworm and schistosomiasis each afflict 200 million Africans. China is among the largest producers of praziquantel, the principal drug for treating schistosomiasis. Merck is another major producer. Praziquantel costs only eight cents a pill, but is still too expensive for many Africans. A multidonor program that includes China and the United States could make a difference.

Other areas in the health sector for possible collaboration include improvement of nutrition and pandemic preparedness. China and the United States have experience in these areas that could be transferred to Africa. The United States and China have significant experience in aiding African agriculture. While the focus over the years in helping African countries has been different, this is another area where they could combine their experience and lessons learned, both positive and negative. Africa needs to build its industrial capacity. While the United States and China might be reluctant to build competition in Africa, if the Africans export more, they will also be able to import more. The two countries could provide technical assistance to help build African global competitiveness.

China has shown a growing interest in improved corporate social responsibility in China and in the context of Chinese companies operating in Africa. This is a priority goal for the United States and one where American companies have considerable experience.

Both countries have demonstrated their concern in recent years over the negative impact of climate change and environmental degradation. African countries are deeply concerned about climate change’s impact on the continent. While the approach of the United States and China to climate change is not the same, it might still be possible to find some common ground in dealing with the issue in Africa.

Coordinated Diplomatic Engagement

One area of cooperation that needs a closer look is coordinated diplomatic engagement. This may not be possible in the case of those African countries that see China and the United States as ganging up on them, a charge that China is especially sensitive about. China firmly supports the concept of sovereignty and will not engage in any diplomatic activity that looks like it encourages regime change.

But these challenges do not rule out the possibility of coordinated diplomatic engagement. Even in the case of Darfur, China ultimately played a helpful role in convincing Khartoum to accept the hybrid UN/AU peacekeeping mission. China has worked quietly behind the scenes in support of policies that promote the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia and the marginalization of the extremist organization, al-Shabaab. China has also engaged actively in efforts to end piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

China has an interest in maintaining close ties to the Omar Bashir government in Khartoum and the new Salva Kiir government in South Sudan. China owns much of the oil infrastructure in the north while 75 percent of the oil now originates in the south. China has been surprisingly successful in building a good relationship with the government of South Sudan. A Chinese company, for example, was just awarded the contract to design Ramciel, the proposed location of South Sudan’s new capital. It is in the interest of both China and the United States that Juba and Khartoum develop a peaceful and cooperative relationship and continue to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. There may well be ways for Washington and Beijing to combine efforts and help the two countries resolve the enormous challenges facing them.

Other troubled parts of Africa where there are no obvious differences in U.S. and China’s policy include Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, and Guinea. They are candidates for coordinated diplomatic engagement. More complicated conflicts that might lend themselves to joint engagement include the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Libya. China is developing significant interests in both countries but coordinated diplomatic engagement will be much more of a challenge. While the United States and China will continue to interact with African countries in their own way and taking their own interests into account, those interests overlap more often than many realize and the possibilities for coordinated diplomatic engagement may be greater than most observers think.

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