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August 4, 2014

China and the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit

by Raymond Mpubani


Opening Ceremony of the 23rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea - 26 June 2014. AU Photo.

Between August 4-6, African leaders will meet with the American president and officials at the first continent-wide U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. The summit, according to the White House, "the largest event any U.S. President has held with African heads of state and government." It is also a recognition of the "Africa Rising" narrative: the White House says it will "strengthen ties between the United States and one of the world’s most dynamic and fastest growing regions."

As numerous reports and articles have pointed out in the build up to the event, the summit is recognition that Africa is going another direction, away from the United States, which can no longer be ignored. That direction is China.

China overtook the United States in 2009 to become Africa's largest trading partner. After realising that it needed new markets and new sources of raw materials, China, in the 1990's, "selected Africa as a priority zone for expansion." With America's security-driven agenda focussed on the Middle East, China made a play for the continent.

According to Howard French, author of "China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa", there are three pillars to China's strategy in Africa. One is raw materials. The second "involves using Africa as a springboard to help Chinese businesses emerge as global players." And, the third most shrewd pillar, China is making a "long bet on the emergence of vibrant, high-consuming middle classes" in Africa, which by then will be familiar with its goods and products.

An indicator of how much China values that strategy is it’s five summits with African leaders since 2000. However, like Howard French argues, it is unlikely that America will seriously challenge China in trade with the continent. It’s advantage, as the Harvard Business Review argues, is the potential of American companies “to create more skill, technology, and innovation” in Africa. It would also not be too bad if it used its influence to push for better governance on the continent.



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