Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and South Sudan. Officials described his four-day tour of Africa as part of efforts “to encourage democratic development, promote respect for human rights [and] advance peace and security,” according to the State Department. As Kerry concluded his voyage, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang embarked on a similar mission to Ethiopia, Kenya, Angola and Nigeria, where he attended the Annual World Economic Forum on Africa.
In recent years, buoyed by its tremendous economic growth, Africa has become an arena of contest between the United States and China and among emerging countries such as Turkey, Brazil and India. In Africa — once regarded as the byword for ethnic conflict, disease and natural disaster — hardly a month goes by before a high-level foreign delegation visits for trade, construction or natural resource deals.
China’s upper hand
In 2012 a new African Union headquarters, built with a $200 million gift from China, was opened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It represented a real turning point in China’s growing influence in the continent. After decades of being patronized by the West, most African leaders are now facing east — shorthand for working with China — as their default position. Western diplomats are often reminded that their countries are no longer the only game in town.
China’s investment in Africa is making it an indispensable player at a time when Africa’s economic fortunes are improving remarkably. China’s policy of noninterference in domestic affairs, especially on human rights, has a particular appeal among African leaders and contrasts sharply with Western nations’ rights-based rhetoric. China’s benign but inherently problematic approach enjoys broad support not only from the political elite, which loathes accountability, but also from the public, which is seeing the immediate, tangible benefits of infrastructure development.
Meanwhile, the United States’ priorities in Africa have increasingly shifted toward counterterrorism. After U.S. embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998, Washington began focusing on smart military engagement with Africa. The 9/11 attacks gave this policy a renewed impetus. “The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states ... can pose as great danger to our national interests as strong states,” then-President George W. Bush proclaimed in his administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy, buttressing the consensus that failed or fragile states are breeding grounds for transnational jihadist groups.
By viewing Africa through a counterterrorism lens, the U.S. is losing out to China and other nations who stand to profit from Africa's rise.
In recent years, African leaders and donors looking to encourage more liberalization have widely trumpeted Africa’s economic boom. In 2010, Africa had a middle class of about 313 million people, or 34 percent of the population, according to the African Development Bank — almost three times the count in 1980, when they made up 26 percent.
Seven of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies are in Africa. Seventy percent of the continent’s people live in countries that posted average growth rates in excess of 4 percent over the past decade. Alongside these remarkable economic numbers, Africa is urbanizing rapidly. The percentage of people living in urban areas in Africa jumped from 32 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2010 and is expected to rise to 47 percent by 2025, according to U.N.-Habitat.
China understands the continent’s economic promise and is keen to be at the forefront of this renaissance. Last week during his visit, Li unveiled at least $12 billion in extra aid for Africa. It includes $10 billion in loans and $2 billion for the China-Africa Development Fund, which facilitates Chinese private investment in Africa. This commitment brings total Chinese credit to Africa to $30 billion, with an additional $5 billion in development assistance. During his eight-day trip, Li also signed a raft of deals with several countries.
African leaders’ uncritical embrace of China to spite unequal relations with the West could roll back the modest progress toward democracy, good governance and improvement in human rights.
Resource extraction remains the mainstay of African-Chinese relations. However, over the years, China has diversified its African investment portfolio. Chinese firms have invested heavily in telecommunications. In 2013, Chinese telecom behemoth Huawei won a $400 million contract to provide mobile phone service in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria. Last year China was awarded a $10 billion project to construct a new port and power plants in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. In Zambia a Chinese firm is building a $600 million hydroelectric plant. Last week Li signed a $3.8 billion deal to construct an 1,800-mile standard gauge railway that will link Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.
Many of these projects have raised labor and environmental concerns. Rights groups have made allegations about the health, safety and mistreatment of construction workers. The environmental impact of large-scale construction projects and the lack of transparency or competitive bidding in some of these deals have also been troubling.
To be sure, some of these projects are key to consolidating some of Africa’s economic gains. But African leaders’ uncritical embrace of China to spite unequal relations with the West could roll back the modest progress toward democracy, good governance and improvement in human rights. China’s no-strings-attached loans will undoubtedly strengthen the hands of autocratic leaders. The destruction of African ecosystems could have long-term environmental consequences. During his tour, as a sign that China is not oblivious to these concerns, Li acknowledged some of the criticisms, adding that “growing pains” were inevitable. He urged Chinese companies to abide by local laws, be responsive to local grievances and shoulder more responsibility for protecting the environment.
With Africa’s burgeoning reputation as the next frontier for investment, China must contend with emerging economies such as India, Brazil and Turkey. Africa’s trade volume with India is projected to reach $70 billion by 2015. Agriculture, natural resources and pharmaceuticals form a huge chunk of India’s trade with Africa. Last year India’s state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corp. bought a 10 percent stake in a Mozambican offshore gas field from American company, Anadarko Petroleum Corp., for $ 2.64 billion.
In a bid to position itself as a global leader in renewable energy, Brazil has invested extensively in Africa’s agriculture. “Brazil has invested in 25 greenfield projects in Africa, mostly in natural resources and agriculture,” according to the African Development Bank. From 2000 to 2011, Brazilian-African trade increased more than sixfold, from $4.2 billion to $27.6 billion. In that time, Brazil opened 19 embassies across the continent, bringing the number of its African embassies to 37.
Turkey has also expanded its footprint in Africa. Turkish-African trade reached $17 billion in 2012, a sharp increase from $5.4 billion in 2008. It is projected to exceed $50 billion by 2015. Turkey has invested heavily in key relief efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. In Somalia, for example, Ankara has pushed its humanitarian projects into areas deemed inaccessible to Western aid groups.
Unlike Western partners, these countries share historical relations with Africa. As former colonies and aid recipients, they reckon a relationship built on mutual understanding and therefore anchored in equity rather than exploitation.
That multiple actors are wooing Africa is a solid commentary on and strong vote of confidence in the continent’s future. In addition to reversing decades of supplicant status in a unidirectional relationship with the West, the diversity of actors increases the continent’s bargaining power. However, in order to fulfill its potential, Africa’s choice should not be to face east or west but rather to double dip, taking advantage of the West’s technology and the East’s investment in infrastructure.