Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Africa: The United States and China Court the Continent

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Africa: The United States and China Court the Continent

Article excerpt

The United States and China are the two most important bilateral, external actors in Africa today. While the United States wields more influence in most of Africa's fifty-three countries, China has surpassed it in a number of states and is challenging it in others. Both countries look to Africa as an increasingly significant source of raw materials, especially oil. China, more than the United States, views Africa from a long-term strategic perspective. Both countries seek political and economic support in international forums from African countries, which constitute more than a quarter of the membership of the United Nations. The interests of the United States and China in Africa are more similar than dissimilar. There will inevitably be some competition over access to African natural resources and political support, but there are even greater opportunities for cooperation that can benefit African nations.

While this analysis looks only at the role of China and the United States in Africa, it is important to keep in mind that there has been a recent expansion of interest in the continent by a number of other countries. Following the end of the Cold War, attention by Western nations, especially the former colonial powers, tapered off and has only recently returned. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in a significant decrease in engagement on the continent by the former communist bloc countries, although Russia has in the past two years shown renewed interest in Africa. Japan and South Korea have maintained their economic links. The major change, however, has been increased engagement in the past decade by China, India, Brazil, several Arab gulf states, Iran and most recently Turkey. Although the global economic crisis may slow down some of this new attention, the playing field in Africa has become more crowded. In addition, the relationships have changed from efforts to obtain political influence by opposing sides during the Cold War to a post-Cold War emphasis by all outside actors on developing stronger economic and commercial ties with Africa.

The recent economic downturn poses new challenges for the interaction of both the United States and China with African countries. While all three parties will suffer to some extent, China is better situated over the short-term to weather the storm. It has a US$2 trillion supply of foreign reserves, a current account surplus, minimal links to foreign banks and a budget surplus. Consequently, China is in a stronger position than the United States to maintain solid trade and economic ties with Africa. As of late 2008, China held $653 billion in U.S. treasury securities out of a total of $3 trillion held by all nations} China's holdings constituted more than any other country or about 22 percent of all U.S. securities owned by foreigners. Because of this enormous investment, China has some leverage that could work to its advantage as it competes with the United States in other parts of the world, including Africa. The United States will be reluctant to pick a fight with China on African issues that are marginal to U.S. security.

The new Obama administration will inevitably make some changes in the U.S. approach toward Africa and may reassess the way the United States interacts with China on the continent. Neither China nor Africa was a significant campaign issue. The Obama team made clear that it would work to fight global poverty, root out corruption, continue efforts to reduce HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, provide debt relief, encourage a green revolution in Africa, support democratization efforts, finance counter-terrorism cooperation, build health infrastructure and launch a global energy and environment initiative to combat climate change. (2) Except for the focus on democratization and possibly climate change, none of these issues should pose a problem for United States-China interaction in Africa.

President Obama has said the two countries should seek to find common ground upon which they can better contribute to Africa's development. …

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