Tuesday, September 10, 2013

China and America covet a continent's riches

Africa's resources, especially energy, are a target for the world's leading economies

Despite indirect suggestions that the US, because of its support of local economies, is a better economic partner for Africa than China, the two global players have similar goals and approaches for Africa - development, job opportunities and access to natural resources. China has already massively supported local African economies by building much-needed infrastructure including roads, ports and bridges in multiple African countries.

Chinese companies, either building infrastructure or involved in other businesses, have also provided jobs. While it's true that China brings most white-collar workers to develop infrastructure projects, the majority of blue-collar staff is African. For instance, the 2010 construction of Chinese-funded Imboulou hydroelectric dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, employed more than 2,000 locals and 400 Chinese construction workers; at the China-Benin Textile Company, there are five Chinese employees and 1,100 local staff members.

This is partly because in many African countries, especially those enduring prolonged periods of war, there is an acute penury of highly skilled workers. Given this context, the US would most likely have to bring its own white-collar workers to develop energy projects. Almost inevitably, the two countries would end up applying a similar employment model: highly skilled labourers include their own nationals, and less skilled labour comprises African locals.

Of course, one of the US and China's key objectives is to benefit from Africa's abundant natural resources. Tanzania possesses significant quantities of gold, diamonds, iron, uranium and natural gas, while Burundi has nickel, uranium, kaolin and gold. China has made significant investments in Sudan and South Sudan, known for its oil resources, and Angola, with major reserves of oil, gas and diamonds. Moreover, at this moment, oil represents 66 per cent of China's exports from Africa, while minerals and metals represent 30 per cent. US imports from Africa consist of 89 per cent oil.

The African continent is an increasingly active market, with six of the world's fastest-growing economies and projected to grow by 5 per cent in 2013. China surpassed the US as Africa's largest trading partner in 2009. In 2012, China invested more than $40 billion in African countries and promised $20 billion in aid during the upcoming three years. That same year, total trade between China and Africa was $128 billion, while Africa's trade with the US was $100 billion. As African countries' economies grow, trade relations will become more profitable.

Despite many similar interests in African countries, one key difference could determine whether China or the US wins over Africa: their approach to countries' respect for human rights and good governance. China has a policy of non-interference in internal affairs with its partners, whereas the US advocates for democracy and human rights, often conditioning aid receipt on efforts to achieve certain standards. During his recent trip to Africa, US President Barack Obama encouraged African countries to strengthen good governance and hold human rights abusers accountable.

Many African countries are far from the standards called for by the US, some due to ongoing conflict, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, others due to political disinterest, as in Uganda. Therefore, these countries, hungry for economic partners, might be more inclined to work with China, which is almost strictly interested in economic pursuits, rather than the US, which seeks social and political involvement in internal affairs and will scrutinise every move.

At the same time, people in other African countries, like South Africa, are increasingly disillusioned with the US and criticise US double standards. During his visit to South Africa, people protested against Obama for the use of drones in the Middle East and failure to close Guantanamo Bay.

South Africa is among Africa's most prosperous nations, constructing strong economic relations with both the US and China. Nevertheless, since 2010, China has become its largest trading partner. During his visit to South Africa, Obama emphasised that the country is a "critical partner".

South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa in the privileged position of efficiently joggling between the economic interests of China and the US. It's a stable democratic country. Many other African countries, possessing more resources than South Africa, such as Sudan and Congo, cannot boast the same political circumstances and, therefore, do not have the same bargaining capacity.

By losing ground on the continent, the US might also lose to China the great power battle for influence in Africa. While the US and China might be fighting for supremacy, other rising global powers, such as Brazil and India, have started claiming their piece of the African pie. According to a Chatham House Report, during the past decade, Brazil raised its trade with Africa from $4.2 billion to $27.6 billion, with oil and other natural resources comprising 90 per cent of its imports from the continent. Both nations perceive Africa as an excellent consumer market for their manufactured goods. Regardless of who wins the battle over Africa, Africans might see their resources sucked up with few considerable improvements to show in their lives.

Raluca Besliu is a freelance journalist focused on women's and children's rights, refugee and human rights issues, and peace and post-conflict reconstruction. She graduated from the University of Oxford after studying international affairs at Vassar College. She founded the non-profit organisation Save South Kordofan.

The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Centre for International and Area Studies at Yale University.

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