China and the U.S. Court Africa

By Raluca Besliu

During a weeklong trip to Africa, with stops in Tanzania, Senegal and South Africa, President Barack Obama announced a new model of engagement between the United States and Africa, based less on aid and more on trade and partnership, with his country helping Africa "build Africa, for Africans." Through several US-Africa economic initiatives launched during his visit, especially regarding trade and energy, Obama strives to catch up with China, which has created strong partnerships on the continent. Obama arrived three months after Xi Jinping visited Tanzania on his first foreign trip as Chinese president in March 2013.

During the trip, the US president indirectly juxtaposed the US and Chinese trade and investment proposals, suggesting that US investors would support local economic capacity, not simply consume its raw materials, eyed by China, given its ever-growing industrial capacity.

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The US and China are both interested in ensuring employment for their citizens, gaining access to valuable resources and securing new stable trade partners. Nevertheless, China will likely win the battle over Africa, due to its policies of non-interference in internal affairs, especially regarding human rights and democracy, lagging for many African countries.

Tanzania was a logical choice among Obama's destinations, given that the US and the African country have had longstanding economic relations. According to Obama, Tanzania has continuously been one of the best US partners in Africa. The US has provided aid to promote transparency, address health and education issues, and target development indicators to sustain progress. In turn, Tanzania exports  agricultural commodities, minerals and textiles to the US, while importing wheat, chemicals and machinery.

One key initiative announced by Obama was Power Africa, a $7-billion program combining public and private funds and loan guarantees, aimed at ensuring cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity. He suggested the program will build on "Africa's enormous power potential, including new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas, and the potential to develop clean geothermal, hydro, wind and solar energy." An indirect implication is that the US could make use of new resource reserves in Africa for both Power Africa and its own national interests. Obama visited the Ubungo power plant, run by US-based Symbion.

Another key project on Obama's agenda was launching Trade Africa, a new partnership between the US and sub-Saharan Africa "that seeks to increase internal and regional trade within Africa, and expand trade and economic ties between Africa, the United States, and other global markets." The partnership will be initially implemented in the East African Community, or EAC: Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Among its original goals, Trade Africa intends to "double intra-regional trade in the EAC, increase EAC exports to the United States by 40%, and reduce by 15% the average time needed to import or export a container from the ports of Mombasa or Dar es Salaam to land-locked Burundi and Rwanda in the EAC's interior." This suggests that the US wants to assist these countries in improving regional trade capacity.

Despite indirect suggestions that the US, because of its support of local economies, is a better economic partner for Africa than China, the two global players have similar goals and approaches. China has already massively supported local African economies, by building much needed infrastructure, including roads, ports and bridges in multiple African countries.

Chinese companies, either building infrastructure or involved in other businesses, have also provided job opportunities. While it's true that China brings most white-collar workers to develop infrastructure projects, the majority of blue-collar staff is African. For instance, the 2010 construction of Chinese-funded Imboulou Hydroelectric Dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, employed more than 2,000 locals and 400 Chinese construction workers; at the China-Benin Textile Company, there are 5 Chinese employees and 1,100 local staff members.

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Raluca Besliu is a freelance journalist focused on women's and children's rights, refugee and human rights issues, and peace and post-conflict reconstruction. She graduated from the University of Oxford with an Msc in Refugees and Forced Migration after studying international affairs at Vassar College. She founded the non-profit organization Save South Kordofan.

Rights: Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale. Yale Global

(AP Photo)

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