August 12, 2012
Superpower Rivalry: US tries to pip China in Africa
by Bunn Nagara@http://www.thestar.com.my
The heavy-duty globetrotting of Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State was bound to take in Africa sooner or later. Now it has done so with as much gusto and relish as a new colonial carve-up of the continent.
This was the “dark continent” before it was “discovered” by the white man, before the African could succumb to Western maladies from various illnesses to the “structural adjustments” imposed by Western-controlled multilateral lending agencies. And Africa today is the continent that Washington sees China moving into.
How could the world’s sole superpower let that go unchallenged, particularly when the moves come from the world’s fastest rising power?
China is seeking natural resources for its growth, scouring the earth from South America to Africa and anywhere else with potential. The US, coming from behind in Africa, wants to get even and then pip China at the post.Just what that means in real policy terms, or how that can benefit US interests, would have to be determined later.
So Clinton goes to nine countries in 11 days, posing with Nelson Mandela in South Africa and holding hands around campfires and singing Kumbaya from Benin, Ghana, Kenya and Malawi to Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan and Uganda. All of it made for good diplomacy and even better feel-good US news copy.
However, some analysts observe that the US just does not have the funds to fulfil its African pledges.Predictably, Washington denied this was in competition with China over Africa. And like all such official denials, it was as good an unofficial confirmation as any.
Clinton’s African agenda was formally based on the White House white paper “US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa” produced just weeks before. This policy document aims to strengthen democracy, boost growth, promote peace and security, and encourage development.
Clinton asserted that the US had had a long history in Africa (before China), and it had been there for all the right and good reasons. But whether China is in the picture or not, US policymakers have a problem in credibly claiming both altruism and a long history in Africa.
Such claims of early US engagements typically neglect mentioning the slave trade from the late 15th century. This notorious denial of human rights through massive human trafficking involved the kidnap of countless African men in their prime over centuries by Europeans who sold them to Americans, setting back African development for generations.
Abraham Lincoln reputedly fought a civil war to end slavery only in the 19th century. That showed how embedded slavery had become in the New World, requiring a civil war to abolish.
Yet even this stain on Western history was predated by several decades by Admiral Zheng. He made three voyages to Africa in the early 15th century. These were Chinese trading missions that came to barter goods and not to extract vital human resources in a criminal fashion.
Later, Ronald Reagan’s administration infamously did business with the international pariah state of apartheid South Africa, while branding Mandela a terrorist leader. When questioned, Reagan called it “constructive engagement” to excuse his collaboration with a racist Pretoria.
Other US experiences elsewhere in Africa resulted in gross corruption and denial of human rights. From Rwanda and Somalia through Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo), Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia to Egypt and Libya today, the positive gains are not as rosy as they have been advertised.
More lately, the Obama administration overturned 10 years of hard work internationally by abruptly dumping a global arms trade treaty at the United Nations. Both legal and illegal arms and munitions supplies have devastated the developing world, notably Africa, which continues to lose thousands of lives and more than US$18bil (RM56bil) a year through armed conflict.
Clinton’s asides on China’s African presence come amid general criticism of Beijing’s modus operandi when doing business in Africa. China stands accused of not placing conditions on its African hosts before proceeding to deal with them.
To those intent on demonising China, however, Beijing can never win: it will be condemned whatever it does or does not do. If China were to impose political conditions on business deals, those who now complain it is not doing so will again be the first to complain.
There is a historical record for reference: once, an ideologically rampant China offered inducements to factions in developing countries to support their domestic communist movements.
Beijing has wisely refrained from such preconditions. Should China still offer such inducements, if only to make its own Communist Party or government look good?
Would it really be better if China exerted pressure on its trading partners or investment destinations to do what it considers important for its own values and objectives? To do so would be China’s equivalent of imposing US conditions on the developing world.
Some countries have also been guilty of offering “aid programmes” that hire their nationals as expatriates in the country supposedly aided. In contrast, China is said to hire African nationals for work on infrastructure projects it builds in Africa.
This provides local employment, while the infrastructure once built will remain in those countries to produce a multiplier effect for development through improved transportation for trade, investment, tourism and the distribution of educational opportunities and healthcare facilities.
Unlike the US variety, Chinese aid, trade and investment come with no strings attached, no crippling IMF or World Bank conditions, no military industrial complex supplying weapons to one side or the other, and no promises or threats of destabilisation, subversion, invasion, occupation, war or “regime change”. And Western critics pick on Beijing for that.
African analysts cite these as reasons why Africans will welcome China’s presence more than a competing US presence. China’s business deals come without the extra baggage of self-righteous preachiness and ideologically loaded value judgments.
Like the rest of the Third World, Africa may want to get as much as possible from both China and the US. So, in practice, it will not be a question of one suitor or the other.
But if Africa on its own is such a compelling case for renewed US interest, with China not a factor at all as officially claimed, why did Washington take so long to get interested? US policymakers must know that the official narrative of a rising Africa is not quite accurate.
To a degree, the Obama-Clinton act over Africa has also resulted from Mitt Romney’s presidential challenge. A leading US specialist on China, Prof David Shambaugh, finds that the Romney campaign is building a foreign policy team based largely on George W. Bush advisers.
This team sees China as a “global competitor” over Africa, and which despite some diplomatic platitudes in the preface, is relying heavily on greater military power. Lethal fallout may yet land in other regions from a superpower tottering in West Asia through teetering in South Asia on the way to Obama’s “pivot” in East Asia.
US presidential campaigns traditionally focus on domestic issues, but China and Africa are now generating a buzz among Americans online. Obama may also win a second term, but Romney’s influence on the campaign trail and Republican pressure in Congress may yet set the tone for US-China relations to come, to impact inevitably on East Asia as a whole.