Anxiety over China’s expanding role in sub-Saharan Africa is prompting the United States to reassess its own involvement and to consider new economic initiatives.

A recent hearing in the US Congress showed that lawmakers are as concerned about the political implications of Chinese power as they are about the threat that Chinese companies pose to US business interests in Africa.

Chris Coons, chairman of a US Senate panel on African affairs, noted that “about 70 per cent of Chinese assistance to Africa comes in the form of roads, stadiums and government buildings.”

An equivalent proportion of US aid “goes toward crucial but less visible support for people, particularly to fight Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases.”

As a result, Senator Coons warned at the outset of the November 1st hearing, “We may be winning the war on disease while losing the battle for hearts and minds in Africa.”

Deborah Brautigam, a Washington-based professor specialising in China-Africa relations, offered a similar perspective in her remarks to the Senate panel. “We’re keeping a lot more people alive,” she said, “but we’re not doing anything to provide jobs for them.”

China has recently surpassed the United States as sub-Saharan Africa’s largest trading partner.

David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia, told the panel that China-Africa trade in 2010 totalled $127 billion, compared with US-Africa trade of $113 billion. Senators lamented over weakening US political influence due to China’s increasing investment in infrastructure projects for which African nations are seeking funding.

The second-highest-ranking member of the Senate is responding to this perceived shift in the political and economic balance of power by calling for a new US trade strategy in Africa. Senator Richard Durbin said he is preparing legislation aimed at trebling US exports to sub-Saharan Africa.

The Obama administration pays insufficient attention to the opportunities Africa offers to US businesses, complained Stephen Hayes, head of the Corporate Council on Africa. He called for increased US government assistance to the private sector in Africa with the aim of enabling millions more Africans to achieve middle-class status.

China’s economic success in Africa can be attributed in part to unfair advantages it enjoys, Mr Hayes added. “Chinese counterfeit goods have flooded African markets, not only undercutting the US companies who have created the products, and driving them out of the market, but also creating health risks with counterfeit medicines,” he told the panel.

Mr Shinn noted that imported Chinese technology is being used in some African countries to stifle freedom of expression. He pointed to the example of Ethiopia where Internet users are blocked from accessing many sites.

Prof Brautigam and Ambassador Shinn counselled the senators not to misread or overreact to China’s involvement, “Its effort to invest on the continent has basically been a plus,” Ms Shinn said.

“While this new standard has not yet been strictly enforced, it does represent a positive change in China’s business practices in Africa,” she said.

“There is also no evidence of a decline in political rights in African countries where China plays an important role,” Prof Brautigam pointed out.

They sought to counter misconceptions of the nature of Chinese investment.

“The longer a Chinese company does business in an African nation, the more it tends to hire African workers,” Prof Brautigam said.

Author: Kevin J Kelly
Source: The East African
Source Date: 11/20/2011
Credit: Russian International Affairs Council