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Analysts See Opening for US to Challenge China in Africa

  • Natalie Liu

President Obama is on the last leg of his three-nation tour of Africa, aimed at promoting U.S. trade with the continent. As Washington turns a fresh eye toward a continent that Obama describes as about to “take off," U.S. government officials and investors alike will find that geopolitical rival China has already made huge strides there.

China’s footprint in Africa is huge. The 20-story African Union tower (in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia) which Beijing donated to the continental group is a testament to the size of Beijing’s ambition.

“Every country, as it achieves global greatness, seeks to leave behind major landmarks that become evidence of its ascendance into global power," said Wole Soboyejo.

Winston Wole Soboyejo spoke to VOA via Skype. He is a professor at Princeton University.

“We must make sure that we combine these monuments with the development of people, because ultimately, it is people-centered development that really matters," he said.

China has long described its relationship with Africa as a relationship between “brothers” in the “anti-colonialist struggle.” Beijing’s recent rise as a commercial power interested in Africa’s rich natural resources has aroused a degree of concern on the continent.

Longtime Chinese activist Wei Jingsheng says Chinese investment in Africa often is tainted with corruption, a trait that travels abroad with Chinese state-owned or private enterprises which have become all too used to it at home.

“These people - they’re used to doing business in a corrupt manner inside China, they take it with them to Africa - it inevitably causes resentment and resistance from ordinary people in Africa," said Jingsheng.

Wei says U.S. and European corporations have been slow to invest in Africa because of the high risks involved, leaving an open door for China.

“Now both U.S. and European countries realize this approach is problematic, that Africa has almost been turned into China’s backyard; Americans and Europeans now are rushing to find ways to change the situation. I’m not sure what they’ll do," he said.

Professor Soboyejo, a native of Nigeria, says many Africans would welcome a greater U.S. involvement on the continent.

“Many people view and appreciate many things in the U.S. - for example, they admire the U.S. educational institutions, they admire many things about the U.S.’s ability to manage its environment, they admire the quality of certain things that come out of the U.S. such as its movie industry, its ingenuity in IT," he said.

He also says the United States can win new friends and build opportunities for investment in Africa by stressing its commitment to free expression and its tradition of welcoming immigrants from many different backgrounds.

“I think with those kinds of investments by the U.S., with those kinds of connections by the U.S., you will see that Africa will become an increasingly vital trade partner in ways that will benefit both sides," said Soboyejo.

President Obama seems to agree that the time is right. In a speech this weekend in South Africa, he said Washington is ready to up its game with new trade and investment and the possible renewal of AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act), the act that removed tarrifs for many exports from the continent.
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