China’s engagement in Africa far surpasses that of the United States in order to fuel China’s insatiable need for energy and other resources. China’s presence on the continent serves as a reminder that the United States should be concerned with the rise of China because China fails to promote good governance or human rights and the U.S. is missing out on opportunities to engage Africa as a trading partner.

china in africa

In 1978, after decades of an oppressive, state-run economy, China implemented significant economic reforms under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. Ever since, China’s economy has grown at unprecedented levels, averaging a growth rate of 10 percent annually from 1980 and 2010. In 2014 alone, the Chinese economy grew by a stunning 7.4 percent. Sustaining such a high level of growth, coupled with the growing needs of its rising middle class, requires significant amounts of energy and resources. As a result, China looks abroad to feed its insatiable its needs, employing a unique approach to do so: it offers development loans and trade deals in exchange for access to resources, specifically oil. In particular, China uses trade and investment projects in Africa in order to gain access to the continent’s vast resources. China produced some apprehension in Washington as it emerged as a growing global power over two decades ago. Today, Chinese actions in Africa help guide desperately needed economic growth across the continent, further causing U.S. policymakers to wonder if the United States should fear China’s rise. China, through its presence in Africa, does present a challenge to the United States and it must approach China’s rise with trepidation and skepticism.

In the political realm, the international community often criticizes China for its approach to Africa because Beijing does not promote good governance or human rights. The United States should be concerned: China does not discriminate which leaders it is willing to work with, whether they are democratic or authoritarian. In fact, China maintains a noninterference policy in the internal affairs of other countries, especially in Africa. In its interactions with these countries, China “rarely attaches any political strings to its assistance to Africa,” allowing China to “deal quite profitably” with autocratic regimes. On the other hand, the United States often attaches conditions (such as improvement in governance or human rights records) in exchange for aid to African countries. It seems that China has limited political motivations in Africa, explaining its use of the noninterference policy. China utilizes foreign aid as a tool for building political camaraderie and economic collaboration. The United States’ reservations also extend into weapons proliferation. As China follows its noninterference policy, Beijing is less likely to vet what countries receive weapons, as long it is in the name of economic cooperation or trade deals. Thus, questionable African leaders are able to receive weapons from China, damaging the United States and the global community’s efforts against weapons nonproliferation.

The strategic difference between China’s noninterference policy and the United States’ conditions in exchange for aid have allowed for China to grow in popularity with African leaders, democratic and not. Dealing with China means that no great reforms are expected as China is simply looking to fuel its booming economy. China’s interaction with African leaders, especially autocrats, is exactly why the United States should fear China’s presence in Africa and globally. As it continues to need more resources as it grows economically and demographically, the more China is willing to engage with African countries with no consideration to who is leading or how they treat their citizens. The United States should be wary of China because the political camaraderie and economic collaboration that China develops will only complicate the United States’ efforts. China’s actions contradict the progress that the United States is trying to make toward a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world.

The United States must also be wary of China’s presence in Africa for economic reasons. China has deep economic ties to the continent and the United States lags behind, evidenced by the fact that Beijing surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. The United States’ engagement in Africa are nominal. However, President Barack Obama has taken some steps to close the distance between the United States’ involvement as compared to China. In August 2014, just before the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington, Mr. Obama announced that U.S. companies were committed to invest $14 billion in Africa, a small price compared to the $75 billion that China invested in the continent from 2000 to 2011. As China’s economy grew, China far surpassed the United States in terms of trade deals and development promises, all in exchange for access to the resources that Africa has to offer. Some analysts charge China is only seeking short-term, economic gains and not truly deep relationships with the African countries, relationships that could help reform the governance of such states. Richard Dowden, in his book “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles,” accuses China that is “playing a long game for oil and other raw materials in Africa and securing allies who will vote for it in the United Nations.”

Therefore, the United States is rightly concerned with, and possibly envious, of China’s popularity and economic ties with Africa because it puts the Americans at a disadvantage as they are losing out on potential fruitful trade deals with African nations simply because the United States does not like some of the countries’ policies. African nations seem to prefer doing business with China because it does not expect political reform in exchange for economic cooperation. If the United States were to remove some of the pressure from its interactions with African nations, they would be able to convince the leaders and the African people that democracy and human rights must be preserved. It will bring a sense of trust between the United States and Africa, something that is desperately needed if the U.S. hopes to retake China’s position as Africa’s preferred economic and political partner. The popularity and efficacy of democracy and human rights advocacy will be apparent if the United States can win Africa back, and to do that, the United States must concentrate on its economic relations with the African continent first with faith that the economic ties will then lead to political reform.

The United States is wise to view China’s rise with skepticism. China’s engagement in Africa presents the perfect case for why the growing economic giant represents a challenge to the United States’ foreign policy. The United States should be wary on a political and economic level because China does not require that political reforms be made in order to do business. It will set up trade deals and development projects with any leader, no matter what their political or human rights record is, if China is able to access its resources. China’s non-interference policy distracts from the United States’ efforts to make the world a more stable and prosperous place. China’s actions in Africa and the United States’ perceived anxiety also prove that the rise of China is a foreign policy concern for the United States.


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