China’s state media are disparaging U.S. President Barack Obama’s travels in Africa as motivated by concern over Beijing’s broadening clout on the continent, a critique the White House discounts.
The United States "obviously lacks a consistent Africa policy" and sees China as a rival for influence and economic opportunities "instead of another constructive power to bring welfare to the land," opinion reporter Liu Zhun wrote in an op-ed published Monday in the English-language Global Times.
"The U.S. used to be a dominant power in Africa," Liu wrote. Saying trade volume between the two has fallen, he concluded that "a change of position has touched the nerves of the U.S."
The official Xinhua News Agency likewise blasted U.S. outreach and boasted of its own projects, according to The Associated Press. "Despite fanfare, U.S. aid programs for Africa fail to make a big difference," the agency's headline read over a Web story noting Obama’s unveiling of a $1 billion program to aid global entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa.
The United States’ $7 billion Power Africa project to provide 50 million Africans with electricity had made little progress since its unveiling in June 2013, Xinhua reported Monday, citing an earlier article in Les Echos in France.
But a senior White House official said that the United States is building on "decades of development relationships" in Africa, where it has supported public health, food security and, especially now, the empowerment of Africans to create their own growth, their own job creation."
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said at a news conference Sunday that China has "played a constructive role" in Africa in areas such as developing infrastructure.
As for the United States' relationship with Africa, he said, "We're not just in it for a set of natural resources; we're here to build African capacity. And that type of partnership over the long run I think does distinguish the United States. It's something that we bring uniquely to bear."
China, Africa’s largest trading partner, has had ties to the continent dating back centuries and has been aggressively working to fortify them in recent years.
The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which first met in Beijing in 2000, now counts 50 of Africa’s 54 countries among its members. Its sixth meeting is scheduled for December in South Africa.
The Asian powerhouse has doubled its financing commitments to Africa at each of the last three forum meetings and it’s expected to bolster them with "another impressive line of credit," according to a report from the Africa Growth Initiative, a project of the Brookings Institution in Washington. China's commitments rose from $5 billion in 2006 to $10 billion in 2009 and $20 billion in 2012. It extended its credit line to Africa by another $10 billion last year.
Just a month ago, the World Bank, the China Development Bank and entities such as the United National Industrial Development Organization staged a two-day forum in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on accelerating “responsible” investment and partnerships in the continent. Light manufacturing was cited as a particular focus, “given the availability of local resources and relatively low labor costs,” a World Bank website said.
The forum’s website highlights diplomatic and academic exchanges, as well as projects such as the Chinese-financed Lamu port being built in Kenya. The $24 billion project, due for completion in 2030, "is expected to be Kenya’s second transport corridor, boosting the economic development and regional integration in the East African region and beyond," the site said.
The Obama administration organized a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington last August to strengthen international ties, too. It brought together some 50 African heads of state for three days of forums on security, health, the environment and corruption. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry all addressed the participants.
During the summit, the United States announced nearly $1 billion in business deals, more funding for peacekeeping, and billions of dollars for food and power programs.
The summit was criticized by some media outlets as an attempt to counter the influence of the Chinese-American forums. (Europe and Japan have engaged in similar efforts with African leaders in government and business.)
Offsetting influence was a factor, but less important than the United States’ recognition that it "has paid insufficient attention to the [African] continent at the highest levels of government in recent years," according to David Shinn, co-author of "China and Africa: A Century of Engagement."
Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia and an adjunct professor at the George Washington University, attributed the burgeoning U.S. interest to three developments: a stabilizing U.S. domestic economy, Africa’s growing economy and opportunities for U.S. partnerships and private investment, and the increasing security threats that extremists pose in Africa and at home.
He made those observations in China-U.S. Focus Digest last fall.