The U.S. Reassesses the China-Africa Relationship


The U.S. Reassesses the China-Africa Relationship

Staton WinterStaton Winter

China, India, Brazil and Russia and even smaller non-western countries such as Turkey, Iran and Indonesia steadily have been replacing western influence in Africa throughout the first decade of the 21st century. China has contributed more to this process than any other single non-western nation and perhaps more than all of the others combined.

China surpassed the United States in 2009 as the largest bilateral trading partner with the combined fifty-three countries in Africa. Although accurate statistics are elusive, Chinese investment in Africa during 2009 may also have been larger than that of any other single nation. Chinese leadership in trade and investment with Africa almost certainly extended through 2010 and will likely continue into the foreseeable future. The United States was slow to react to the non-western challenge to western influence in Africa, especially that which came from China. The United States did not even perceive the situation as a challenge during the waning years of the Clinton administration and through the first four years of the Bush administration.

When the United States finally understood the magnitude of growing Chinese influence in Africa during the second half of the Bush administration, it did not accord it a high priority in U.S.-Africa policy, which has traditionally had the lowest policy priority of major world regions. The West generally had decreased its attention to Africa following the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. The 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States focused Washington on the Global War on Terror, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This created an ideal environment for China, which has now experienced three decades of annual GDP growth of about 9 percent, to assert its economic and, in some cases, political influence in Africa.

Chinese and American Interests in Africa

It is important to look at both Chinese and American interests in Africa before offering an assessment of the U.S. view of China-Africa relations. China has four principal interests in Africa. First, China wants to ensure access to oil, minerals and raw materials that account for more than 85 percent of its imports from Africa and contribute significantly to its high GDP growth rate. Second, China desires good relations with all African countries so that it can seek their political and economic support in regional and international forums such as the UN Commission on Human Rights and World Trade Organization.

Third, it seeks to end Taiwan’s diplomatic presence in Africa and replace it with recognition of Beijing. Only four African countries now recognize Taipei. Since the election in 2008 of President Ma Ying-jeau in Taiwan, there has been an informal truce between Beijing and Taipei concerning competition for diplomatic recognition. This truce is probably temporary. Fourth, China wants to increase significantly its exports to Africa as African economies grow and Africans become wealthier.

The United States has five major interests in Africa. First, it depends on Africa for about 20 percent of its imported oil; more than 90 percent of all U.S. imports from Africa constitute petroleum products. Second, the United States seeks the support of African countries in regional and international forums. Third, it needs the consent of African countries for military aircraft over flight and landing rights and access by its naval vessels to African ports. It also maintains a military base in Djibouti intended primarily to counter terrorism in the region.

Fourth, the United States seeks to expand its exports to Africa. Fifth, Africa, like other parts of the world, confronts a number of negative developments such as terrorism, piracy, money laundering and drug trafficking. The United States seeks to minimize these threats so that they do not harm U.S. interests in Africa or manifest themselves in the United States. Chinese and American interests in Africa are surprisingly similar. The United States and China share three interests In Africa. The only Chinese interest that does not apply to the United States is China’s goal to replace Taiwan’s diplomatic representation in Africa.

While China has shown little interest so far in pursuing two U.S. interests in Africa—military access and minimizing the negative issues, this may be changing. Chinese naval vessels have been active in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden for the past two years. This has led to discussion in Chinese naval circles that it may need more permanent access to ports in the region if its naval vessels are to operate effectively. China is also cooperating increasingly with African organizations such as the African Union on counterterrorism and money laundering.

Similar Chinese and American interests in Africa suggest the likelihood of greater competition between the two countries. While this may be the case over the longer term, it has not led to serious competition. Oil is a fungible product and the fact that both China and the United States purchase large quantities in Africa has not resulted in significant Chinese-American competition. On the other hand, there is some U.S.-China competition for African political support on issues related to human rights, democratization and economic reform.

Both the United States and China tend to support political stability and the status quo in Africa. With some exceptions, such as Chinese support for authoritarian governments in Sudan and Zimbabwe, this actually offers an arena for collaboration. For example, the United States and China have worked together to support the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia and seem to be following a similar policy following the presidential election crisis in Cote d’Ivoire.

In percentage terms, Africa remains such a small market for Chinese exports (about 3 percent of global exports) and American exports (about 2 percent) that it has not resulted in serious competition. This could change if Africa becomes a more important market for American and Chinese imports. China and the United States also cooperate on UN peacekeeping operations and the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. Should China decide to expand its bilateral security engagement in Africa, the possibility for friction will increase.

Bush Administration Policy on China-Africa Relations

Once the Bush administration belatedly began to focus in 2005 on the growing importance of China’s role in Africa, it followed a generally constructive policy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted in 2005 that “America has reason to welcome the rise of a confident, peaceful, and prosperous China. We want China as a global partner, able and willing to match its growing capabilities to its international responsibilities.” Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick subsequently called on China “to become a responsible stakeholder” in the system.

During congressional testimony in 2005, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Michael Ranneberger, commented that China’s growing presence in Africa can increase the potential for collaboration between the United States and China “as part of a broader, constructive bilateral relationship.” He added that “the future of U.S.-China relations in Africa has yet to be charted, but a focused, direct dialogue is an essential starting point. The administration will continue to advance U.S. interests in Africa actively and to engage China directly, at all appropriate levels, to seek to develop new concepts of cooperation that can advance our common interests.”

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, began in 2005 the first of three rounds of bilateral discussions with her Chinese counterpart. The first meeting was perfunctory, although Frazer stated that the United States did not believe China’s engagement in Africa was in direct competition to the United States.

The second round in 2007 dealt more specifically with debt sustainability, peacekeeping operations and conflict resolution in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region, Chinese companies’ reputational risks in Africa and transparency in the extractive industries. It particularly covered the situation in Darfur, a subject of considerable Chinese-American dialogue with a variety of officials. The third and final round of United States-China meetings on Africa during the Bush administration took place in Beijing in 2008. Frazer said that there may be opportunities for the two countries to cooperate in building Africa’s infrastructure and its agriculture and health sectors. She added that coordinating American and Chinese aid would prevent overlapping projects and lead to more efficient use of resources.

While expressing concern about Chinese lending practices and China’s failure to endorse the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative for Africa, she praised China’s efforts that encouraged the government of Sudan to cooperate on peace talks on Darfur.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, James Swan, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, James Christensen, testified in 2008 that China’s growing engagement in Africa is a “potentially positive” force for economic development. They did not see evidence that China’s commercial or diplomatic activities in Africa are aimed at diminishing U.S. influence. They described China’s embrace of market-based economics and openness to most aspects of globalization as a positive example for African nations. They did express some concern about Chinese practices on good governance, human rights and transparency in Africa. They also identified as possible areas for cooperation UN peacekeeping operations, countering endemic diseases and joint development projects in the agricultural sector.

Obama Administration Policy on China-Africa Relations

Neither China nor Africa was a significant issue during the 2008 presidential campaign in the United States. Barack Obama did comment in campaign literature that he would not demonize China, but rather try to draw it further into the international system. He argued that the United States needs to cooperate with China to solve significant international issues. He acknowledged that China’s influence in Africa is among the most significant developments on the continent since the end of the Cold War. Obama said he would impress upon China’s leaders that their support for governments in Sudan and Zimbabwe runs counter to the wellbeing of the people in those countries and to China’s longer-term interests in becoming a global leader.

Obama pointed out that China is supporting a “reprehensible regime” in Sudan and promised to use all available tools, including a no-fly zone, to end the mayhem in Darfur. Once in office, the Obama administration quickly dropped the idea of a no-fly zone for Darfur.

Obama campaign statements noted that China’s growing presence in Africa challenges the United States to improve its own policies and programs. He concluded that it would be mutually beneficial if Africa and the United States developed strategies for cooperating with China in critical areas such as poverty alleviation, health care and protection of the environment. Obama did not signal a significant departure from the policy of the Bush administration on China’s engagement in Africa but did suggest it may pose greater challenges for the United States. With the U.S. economy in tatters and the war in Afghanistan going poorly, not surprisingly, China’s role in Africa was not a high foreign policy priority as the Obama administration organized itself at the beginning of 2009.

Early in the Obama administration, the African Bureau of the State Department requested its embassies in Africa to increase reporting and analysis on Chinese activity in Africa. There seemed to be an initial bias for identifying areas where both countries could cooperate. The United States welcomed continued Chinese contributions to UN peacekeeping operations in Africa and the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden. In Liberia, the United States and China joined forces to eradicate malaria and supported UN peacekeeping projects, including construction of the barracks at Bonga. But there were very few other cases of Chinese-American collaboration on the continent.

In some cases, this may have been a result of a lack of enthusiasm by the leadership at the American embassy in a particular African country. At the same time, Chinese embassies, probably under instruction from the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, have been reluctant to become too closely linked to U.S. projects and activities in Africa. China’s preference is to operate bilaterally so that it does not have to accommodate U.S. concerns about transparency, human rights and democratization. China has shown consistently that it has little interest in joining donor coordination groups in African capitals. These informal groups are controlled by western donor countries.

To the extent that China engages on a multilateral basis, it prefers to do so in the context of the United Nations and more recently the World Bank, where it has greater ability to influence the ground rules. Some African governments have made clear that they would not benefit from Chinese cooperation with the West on economic assistance. These governments prefer to negotiate individually with donor countries so that they have greater leverage and more options. This is especially true in the case of interaction with China, which does not impose political conditions on its aid, although most of its “assistance” is in the form of loans that are tied to Chinese companies.

A number of African countries fear that the United States and other western donors will use cooperation with China to attach political conditions to its development assistance. This concern by African governments has almost certainly been conveyed to China, which has resulted in even greater reluctance by Beijing to cooperate with the United States and the West. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, met with representatives of western oil companies in Lagos 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. A secondary reason for China’s presence is to secure votes in the United Nations from African countries. A third reason is to prove that Taiwan is not an issue.”

Carson added that “there are trip wires for the United States when it comes to China. Is China developing a blue water navy? Have they signed military base agreements? Are they training armies? Have they developed intelligence operations? Once these areas start developing then the United States will start worrying. The United States will continue to push democracy and capitalism while Chinese authoritarian capitalism is politically challenging.”

Although Carson’s confidential remarks were not intended to reach the public for at least another ten years, they represent an honest, if unusually frank, U.S. reaction to China’s position in Africa as of early in 2010. The United States does not view China as a threat in Africa, although Carson’s remarks suggest a hint of frustration that so many African leaders are swooning over China’s interaction with Africa while they take much greater American and western economic assistance for granted. Of course, like China, the United States is primarily in Africa for its own interests. Looking to the future, Carson’s comments on trip wires underscore that certain Chinese actions in Africa will result in a reassessment of Washington’s approach to Chinese relations with Africa.

Some of this concern about China’s role in Africa appeared in an early 2010 cable from the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. The cable noted that as the United States considers reforms essential to Kenya’s stability and prosperity, China’s silence on political reform in the country causes American unease. The U.S. embassy expressed reluctance to collaborate with China because there appears to be little convergence of American and Chinese interests in Kenya.

Finally, the embassy concluded that Kenya’s leadership may be tempted to move closer to China in an effort to shield itself from western and especially U.S. pressure to reform. Upon reading these cables, a professor at the United States International University in Kenya, Macharia Munene, concluded that “any increase in Chinese dominance is a reduction in the US influence and that is the latter’s worry.”

But this situation is not entirely a zero sum game. As Chinese influence increases with some elements of the government, it may decrease with civil society, opposition political parties, labor unions and even in some government circles. These are groups where the West may increase its influence as China is improving its position with African government leaders.

There is a growing understanding in the Obama administration that the United States cannot just sit back and complain about China’s success in Africa. It must become more proactive and competitive. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, William Fitzgerald, addressed the Chinese challenge during a roundtable discussion with journalists in South Africa in October 2010. While he did complain that Chinese investment and infrastructure projects in Africa do not include sufficient technology transfer to Africans, bring in too much Chinese labor and often undercut African construction companies, he acknowledged there is a positive side to China’s engagement. He commented that the “Chinese are cash rich and investment hungary,” which requires that the United States become more competitive. If China forces American companies to pay more attention to Africa and to improve their competitiveness, this could work to the benefit of both the United States and Africa.

The U.S. Export-Import Bank is one tool whereby Washington is trying to become more engaged in Africa. In 2009, the Bank invested about $800 million in forty-one sub-Saharan African countries. The Chairman of the Bank, Fred Hockberg, during a visit to South Africa late in 2010, hinted that U.S. investors may be forced to match China’s favorable investment terms for African governments. It has become increasingly apparent that in order to compete with China in Africa the United States will have to devise a new strategy without compromising its core foreign policy principles, especially the promotion of democracy and support for human rights.

Democratization and Human Rights: A Big Hurdle

Although the United States is not always consistent on its policy of encouraging democracy and better human rights practices in Africa, it clearly takes a very different position than does China, which consistently supports existing governments irrespective of their democracy and human rights records. The United States pushes most African governments, for example Zimbabwe and Sudan, with poor records to achieve significant improvement. The United States has relatively poor relations with Sudan and Zimbabwe; as a result, taking a hard line on democratization and human rights is easy. The United States is even hard on some friendly African countries such as Kenya that have much better records. On the other hand, the United States treats with considerable care a country such as Equatorial Guinea, which has a poor human rights record and where the United States has important oil interests.

China, which imports considerable oil from Equatorial Guinea, has even closer relations with its political leadership. American and Chinese differences over the process of democratization and human rights promise to be a major hurdle in efforts by the two countries to collaborate on projects in Africa. The United States puts a premium on individual human rights, freedom of speech, movement and assembly. China has a very different approach to human rights that emphasizes collective and community rights and the right to escape poverty. Individual rights are not especially important.

These two concepts are fundamentally different; many African countries seem to be torn between the different approaches while a few ignore both the western and Chinese concept of human rights. Explaining differences about democratization is more complex. Majority opinion based on surveys in China shows strong support for democracy and, at the same time, a high level of satisfaction with the country’s authoritarian government. One explanation is the Confucian tradition based on the theory of government by guardians built on the doctrine of minben, which requires the government to treat the welfare of the common people as the foundation of its wealth and power. Minben is a paternalistic concept that plays poorly in the United States where the individual is expected to take greater responsibility.

While minben and liberal democracy seek to promote the public welfare, they differ in many critical respects. First, minben and liberal democracy specify different means for delivering good governance—by government institutions in a liberal democracy and under the direction of elites according to Confucianism. Second, in liberal democracies a government acquires legitimacy primarily through fair elections.

Under minben doctrine, a government’s legitimacy is defined by the substance and legitimacy of its policies. Third, in a liberal democracy participation is a basic right guaranteed by the social contract between citizens and their government. Minben limits the scope of ordinary citizen’s political participation mainly to conveying their concerns to political leaders. While support seems to be growing In China for some of the basic concepts behind liberal democracy, the minben tradition remains strong. More important, a significant percentage of Chinese lack any idea of what democracy is or they hold incoherent and ambiguous ideas about it.


So long as the Chinese leadership emphasizes national sovereignty and professes to eschew non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, China will pursue a very different approach to governance in Africa than that urged by the United States. During the Obama administration, this may prove to be the single most important philosophical obstacle to American and Chinese cooperation in Africa. African governments that perceive an advantage in Chinese and western competition in Africa will also have a major impact on the way China and the United States interpret and interact with each other on the continent.

Nevertheless, there will continue to be areas related to African political stability and UN peacekeeping where the United States and China will find common ground.

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