In just a few short weeks, 51 African heads of state will descend on Washington for an historic U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. With the theme of “investing in the next generation,” the White House has announced that the event will “focus on trade and investment in Africa, and highlight America’s commitment to Africa’s security, its democratic development, and its people.” The first of its kind, the Summit offers an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen U.S. diplomatic, commercial, and security ties with an increasingly important region of the world.
Some have argued that at heart the Summit is a U.S. response to China’s growing role in Africa. In January 2014, after the details were announced, an Agence France-Presse article appeared with the headline “US to host Africa summit amid concern over China’s influence.”Just last week, a Foreign Policy article suggested that the underlying reason for the event was to “narrow the growing gap between America’s economic ties with African countries and those of China.” Undoubtedly, in the coming weeks leading up to the Summit on August 4-6, many journalists and pundits will likely continue to describe it as an attempt to challenge China’s increasing influence in Africa.
This framing may make for good headlines, but it also dramatically overemphasizes the grounds for competition between the U.S. and China in Africa. Framing the Summit in this way misrepresents both current geopolitical realities and commercial opportunities in Africa. A more sober analysis of two areas of focus for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit—trade and investment, and security—shows just how much how U.S., Chinese, and African interests align in key policy areas.
Trade and Investment
The reality is that China is just one of many international players that have increased their attention to Africa in recent years. Largely due to Africa’s growing reputation as a region for commerce, over the past few years China, India, Japan, and the European Union all have hosted regional meetings similar to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Africa’s fractional share in global foreign direct investment (FDI) is on the rise, and trade between Africa and a multitude of nations is also increasing rapidly.
Of course, China is the most conspicuous among these actors. China’s first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) occurred in 2000 and larger conferences have taken place every three years since then. And while China’s official FDI is only 25 percent of that of countries like the U.S. and France, its trade dwarfs the figures of other nations. Up from just $10 billion in 2000, Chinese-African trade came to nearly $200 billion in 2012, double that of the United States, the continent’s second largest trading partner.
The increases in trade and FDI underscore the fact that growing economic activity from China (and others) in Africa does not represent America’s loss in a “zero sum” game; it means that the overall economic pie is getting bigger as Africa becomes more closely tied into the global economy. In fact, President Obama made this same point during his Africa trip last summer, telling reporters, “I actually welcome the attention that Africa is receiving from countries like China and Brazil, and India, and Turkey.”
Nevertheless, there is a persistent misperception that individual American companies are losing out to Chinese firms, despite clear evidence to the contrary. A 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on Chinese and American economic activities in Africa showed that there is relatively little direct competition between Chinese and U.S. firms due to different areas of focus and technical capacities. American firms have advantages in technology and therefore focus on more advanced products and services. Generally speaking, less sophisticated Chinese companies concentrate on less expensive products that take advantage of their lower manufacturing costs. For the same reasons, U.S. companies actually compete more with European than with Chinese companies in Africa.
Furthermore, Chinese investments in Africa can actually benefit U.S. interests. Successful foreign investments can provide valuable lessons for American companies. And while more transparency is needed in government-backed deals, the many Chinese infrastructure investments—on a continent in dire need of more roads, bridges, and ports to support growing economies and populations—can benefit Africans, Americans, and other foreign investors. It is becoming increasingly difficult for an international executive to do business in Africa today without driving on a Chinese-constructed road, meeting in a Chinese-built conference center, or shipping materials on a Chinese-made railway.
While security issues have long been a source of woes for the many African countries that achieved independence fifty years ago, potential threats to stability on the continent have begun to garner more serious attention among policymakers in Washington and Beijing in recent years. On the U.S. side, Islamists with regional political aims in the Sahel and East Africa have sounded alarm bells: Their growing links with Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups across the continent are a concern. On China’s side, a long-standing policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries has been tested, and its growing global footprint has earned it a seat at the table in many local squabbles. With a state-centric foreign policy and its own terrorism problems inXinjiang, China is a natural partner against the emerging terrorist threats on the continent.
And for the most part the United States and China employ similar strategies for promoting stability on the continent: Both prefer to address security concerns multilaterally, providing support and expertise to regional and local partners. While the Obama Administration has gone to great lengths to support multilateral security efforts in Mali, Somalia, and Sudan, the Chinese provide more troops to UN peacekeeping operations than the other permanent members of the Security Council combined. In Mali, the Chinese recently provided military and financial assistance to the African Union to support its efforts in combatting the spread of al-Qaeda affiliates.
The recent international attention in Nigeria provides another specific example of overlapping interests and approaches. In the wake of the schoolgirls kidnapping by Boko Haram, both the U.S. and China (with far less security capacity) offered to share intelligence with the Nigerian government and provided teams of experts to assist the government in its search. Although all parties might be slow to admit this publicly, Nigeria is clearly a case where African, American, and Chinese interests align against a common enemy.
Focusing on Africa
The recent China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue provides a reminder that the United States and China—the established power and the newcomer to the global stage—undoubtedly have areas of potential conflict: territorial tensions in the East and South China Seas, cyber espionage, and currency manipulation among them. But in Africa, although both countries are attempting to enhance their soft power and there are clear differences on human rights and democratization, by and large critical economic and security interests are in alignment.
As attention to the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit picks up in the coming weeks, observers and participants should curb the talk about competition with China and instead focus on the important African issues at hand. The U.S. has growing, legitimate national interests in Africa—including counter-terrorism, emerging economic opportunities, and international health and development challenges. But if the U.S. overemphasizes competition with China, it risks missing a rare and important opportunity to cooperate on key issues and, more importantly, to work with African leaders on the challenges and opportunities on the continent.