Three-country tour meant to entice African trading partners away from China

Posted: Jul 2, 2013 5:10 AM ET

Last Updated: Jul 2, 2013 12:39 PM ET


U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a business leaders' forum in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Monday. U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks at a business leaders’ forum in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Monday. (Reuters)



When U.S. President Barack Obama wraps up an African tour today, it will mark the end of what some international development experts say is an attempt to counter China’s growing influence throughout sub-Saharan Africa and assert American economic dominance on the continent.


China surpassed the U.S. in total trade in sub-Saharan Africa in 2009, but its increasingly strong economic ties took root in 2000, when then-Chinese president Hu Jintao hosted representatives from 44 African nations in Beijing to establish the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation.


That meeting “set a mandate for China to become Africa’s largest trading partner,” says Richard Poplak, a Johannesburg-based Canadian author and journalist writing a book about China’s growing role in Africa.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Cape Town on Sunday.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the University of Cape Town on Sunday. (Reuters)

It was also an early sign that the Chinese viewed economic opportunity in Africa through a different lens than their American counterparts.


“What the Chinese did that no one else had done before was that they considered Africa as a market — a market for Chinese goods, institutions and services — when the rest of world viewed Africa as an economic basket case and a place for aid programs,’ says Poplak.


While the U.S. focused on global security following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Chinese firms began shoring up major contracts throughout the continent that ensured access to Africa’s vast resource wealth in exchange for the funding and construction of infrastructure projects like roads, railways and airports.


China also emphasized multilateral agreements with entire regions of sub-Saharan Africa — agreements the U.S. has largely avoided in the past, says Thomas Tieku, an assistant professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

“The U.S., in many senses, miscalculated their approach to Africa. It has always been to focus on bilateral relationships— select a few countries and deal solely with them,” says Tieku. “Now they’re playing a catch-up game to try to establish equally strong relationships with multilateral institutions like the African Union.”

A new approach

Obama’s three major announcements during the trip — a $7-billion project to increase electrical infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa; an investment in trade with the East African Community (EAC); and a meeting in Washington with leaders from throughout Africa next year, are signs of a shifting U.S. approach to business in Africa, says Tieku.


“One area where China cannot compete with the U.S. is soft power. Many Africans love American pop culture, and the best way to get a pro-American message to Africans is through televisions, radios and the internet.


“So the infrastructure investment will help Africans, but also the U.S. down the road.”

The agreement with the five EAC nations signals that the U.S. is willing to begin dealing on the regional level to increase intra-continental trade, which accounts for only 10 per cent of all trade in Africa, says Poplak.

‘They’re not doing this to counter the U.S., they are doing it because it fits into their vision of themselves as a major player. They need African resources, but moreso they need African support and diplomatic partnerships.’—Deborah Brautigam

Included in that deal is a commitment to renew and strengthen the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, a major initiative passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000 to help open sub-Saharan economies.


The act is largely considered a failure because the infrastructure was not in place to get African products to global markets, says Tieku.


“With new infrastructure coming into place, being built every day, it’s possible AGOA will realize its potential.”


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