Should the United States Fear China in Africa?

The best reasons to pay attention to Africa are inherent to Africa itself. They go to extraordinary demographics, with an upside at least as full of opportunity as the downside is full of risk. They go to the immense opportunity for both Africans and Americans represented by economic growth on the continent, which needs to be enhanced and broadened.

Copyright The Washington Post

Should the West fear China’s growing influence on the African continent? While there is no question that China and Chinese companies are changing the way African politicians seek aid and investment, the relationship between the two sides is far more complicated than simple narratives about “democracy or dictatorship” or “trade not aid” suggest. Veteran journalistHoward W. French explores this complexity in his book, “China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa.” He graciously took the time to answer my questions about the book and China’s role in Africa.

LS: Much of the discourse in American politics is that the U.S. should be afraid of China’s role in Africa because China is undemocratic or “trying to take over.” Is this a fair approach? Why or why not?

HF: I’m afraid the American discourse on China and Africa is very confused and generally not very insightful. Part of that is driven by the recent, still startled realization in this society of just how serious a competitor China is becoming, and part of that reflects the baggage of very old and nearly immutable American attitudes toward Africa, which are bound up in paternalism and in using Africa as a kind of vanity mirror to help us brighten our own self-image and feel better about ourselves.

Make no mistake, China is competing with the United States, and an important element of that is going where its major rival, namely us, is thinly represented on the ground, lightly engaged in terms of political, economic and policymaking resources — in other words, places where the United States has been coasting or has simply not brought its “A Game.” This background has a lot to do with why China has made such a big and concerted push into Africa in the last 10 to 15 years, and why, not coincidentally, the United States didn’t really sit up and pay attention until fairly recently. Even with that, we are stuck with old policy paradigms in Africa that hark back to the Clinton administration, of favoring selected autocrats who can keep order locally in their regions, cooperate with the United States in its extra-African policy priorities, especially those related to radical Islam and the “war on terror,” and we do so, furthermore, in the naive conviction that the autocrats also offer a better chance at generating and sustaining economic growth. This is how, for example, Barack Obama came to announce Ethiopia as the political highlight of his coming, near-end-of-presidency visit to the continent, and adding a visit by the leader of democratic Nigeria, an immensely important country, only as an apparent afterthought and in response to a certain outcry.

In the final analysis, though, the reason to pay attention to Africa is not China. We need to get over the idea that one needs an excuse to pay attention to Africa. That, too, is a holdover from the Clinton era, when they came up with out-migration and the threat of epidemic diseases as an excuse to have a look in on the continent, perhaps as a response to Robert Kaplan. The best reasons to pay attention to Africa are inherent to Africa itself. They go to extraordinary demographics, with an upside at least as full of opportunity as the downside is full of risk. They go to the immense opportunity for both Africans and Americans represented by economic growth on the continent, which needs to be enhanced and broadened. They go to urbanization. And, finally, they go to matters of universal interest related to the environment, in other words, helping ensure that Africa, which is a late-starter in many economic processes, can both maximize its potential and get things right environmentally. As long as we cast our interest in Africa in negative frames, of security, or rivalry with China, we’ll continue to miss this hugely important big picture. Similarly, as long as we continue to play small ball, politically, calling an Africa policy the occasional gathering of “young entrepreneurs,” hosting four or five African leaders together at once for a photo op at the White House, and making a mere one or two visits to the continent at the presidential level per term, we’ll be failing to engage the continent’s potential and simply missing out.

To read the entire interview, please follow this link.

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