America v. China: Battleground Africa

By Mike Burrows, staff editor Events in authoritarian regimes across the Middle East have brought additional attention on China’s role in Africa, in terms of both small-scale unrest in the world’s largest centrally-run country and China’s service as financier and presumed backstop of other dictatorial regimes. China is unlikely to introduce full democracy anytime soon, but the chain of events provides a new reason to look more closely at China’s evolving position on the African continent.

While African governments celebrate newfound choice and influence as their countries develop, China highlights its contribution to humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, Western interpretations of this phenomenon often range from cautious reviews of the consequences of Chinese involvement and outright terror. In fact, the Chinese presence in Africa is far from the monolithic economic imperialism, orchestrated coolly by Beijing, that the press often describes.

In addition to the many state-owned enterprises and government representatives operating throughout Africa – often thought of as ‘China Inc.’ – Chinese immigration to Africa is primarily comprised of hopeful entrepreneurs. At least tens of thousands of Chinese have made a living in Africa by providing relatively inexpensive, much-demanded goods and services to Africans across the continent. Complaints about low product quality and undercutting local suppliers notwithstanding, these merchants have by any standard improved African purchasing power by providing less expensive consumer goods. So while China Inc. builds roads and buys oil, China Mart fills the countries shelves with affordable, desirable products.

So in a broad sense, perhaps the United States should not be overly concerned about China forcing itself on the African continent – in many cases it seems that Africa is OK with China. Nor should we project unreasonable fear of humanitarian repercussions: after decades of American support for now-discredited regimes, there is abundant evidence of our own government’s forgivable but thematic realpolitik. If the United States intends to maintain an influential role in Africa’s development, it should follow China’s example of offering things that Africa actually wants – and things that it can do a better job than China at offering

First, while China sends teams of engineers to build roads, the United States can use its world-leading higher education system to build Africa’s knowledge economy. Research partnerships at universities can bring top minds from abroad, augmenting US academic institutions while enabling visitors to take their knowledge and experiences back home.

Second, Chinese merchants sell a wide range of consumer goods throughout Africa, but the Chinese back home still don’t buy much but raw materials from Africa – raw materials that will run out. China’s resource patronage will win short term favor from African states, but the United States will for a long time remain the world’s largest consumer. Targeted American investment can guide African economic development away from pure extraction and toward sustainability.

Third, the Chinese are popular in Africa in part due to their foreign aid, which comes without the fiscal restrictions commonly associated with Western aid. Given the often value-driven nature of American policy, unchaining US aid restrictions in the Chinese fashion is unrealistic. But there are ways to improve our own aid delivery system. Making it focus less on administrative procedures and more on tangible results may be one of them.

Rhetoric fails to accurately portray the Chinese role in Africa, and rhetoric alone won’t keep the United States relevant in Africa. Instead of polarizing the discussion on China’s African adventures, the United States would best serve its own diplomatic desires by better meeting Africa’s development needs.


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