China-Africa relations today are fraught with stereotypes: That China is a neo-colonialist power, that China is only interested in Africa’s oil, and that China only does business with African despots. Underlying these predominately Western-generated stereotypes, however, is an undeniable truth: Over the past decade, China has been more effective than the West in developing strong relations with African nations.
The success of China’s ventures in Africa is apparent upon visiting any of the 48 African nations that China has diplomatic ties with today. From ubiquitous road construction to major resource extraction, the Chinese influence is palpable across Africa. Employing a practice of combining typical humanitarian aid with business and following a “no strings attached” policy in which the government pledges not to interfere in the domestic affairs of African nations, the Chinese have been extremely proficient in brokering new business deals. This method radically diverges from the standard United States approach to business in Africa, which has historically placed priority on democracy over development. Although China’s policies have drawn strong criticism from Western nations on the grounds of transparency and human-rights issues, they have yielded more tangible economic benefits for both China and its African partners.
The difference in the effectiveness of American and Chinese policy toward Africa has been highlighted in Sudan over months since South Sudan seceded from Sudan. Earlier this year, the U.S. played a key role in assuring South Sudan’s smooth democratic secession from Sudan. In a New York Times op-ed, President Obama asserted U.S. support for South Sudan in the referendum process, writing that “those who make the right choice will by remembered by history—they will also have a steady partner in the United States.” Despite this bold statement of support for the fledgling nation, upon gaining independence, South Sudan and the U.S. have yet to broker any major business deals and the U.S. has largely failed to become otherwise involved in the progress of the new nation as of yet.
On the other hand, ever since the reality of a secession movement began to take root, China has been carefully orchestrating the transition from fully supporting Bashir’s regime in Sudan to balancing its interests between both nations. Knowing that 80 percent of Sudan’s oil is produced in South Sudan, China founded a special consulate in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, even before the nation gained independence. From this pre-meditated position, China’s ambassador to Sudan, Yang Jiechi, launched into a series of talks this summer with Bashir and the new leader of South Sudan, President Kiir, over the future of the three countries’ oil relations. Recognizing the integrated nature of business between the two countries, China accordingly situated itself in the axis of power, facilitating between the two. While China can do business with Khartoum and Juba, the U.S. cannot enter the South Sudan oil market while oil is still running through pipelines owned and controlled by Sudan, which maintains its position on the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
Although China’s “no strings attached” policy naturally puts the U.S. at a disadvantage in South Sudan, the U.S. can still learn from China’s holistic approach to relations with South Sudan and other African nations. China has major investments in Africa’s natural resources, but contrary to common belief, China has also diligently diversified its business interests in Africa outside of the natural resource sector. In his visit to South Sudan this past August, Yang made it clear that China is interested in working in areas outside of oil extraction such as, “agriculture, infrastructure [and] construction." This approach will not only allow China to gain the natural resources it needs for development but also help South Sudan gain a foothold in a broad range of markets by partnering with an economic giant. Although the U.S. is unable to engage in large-scale oil transactions with South Sudan, policymakers should observe China’s foresight and engage in other sectors of the new country’s economy. In doing this, the U.S. would not only support South Sudan’s struggling economy as President Obama outlined but would also maintain a connection to the South Sudanese business world in preparation for the eventual lifting of sanctions on Sudan.
The most important lesson the U.S. can learn from China is the effectiveness of the Chinese focus on development as the priority in doing business in Africa. Although it is important for the U.S. to represent democracy worldwide, China’s emphasis on economic growth may be more beneficial for African nations. In doing this, China avoids playing the paternalistic role the West has often taken in Africa and instead helps African nations build a foundation of prosperity from which good governance and human rights can hopefully follow.
Ultimately, neither country has a flawless record or strategy in Africa, but both the U.S. and China must be aware of the enormous influence they have to shape the future of African nations due to their sheer economic power. Going forward, Sino-American relations will be tested as competition for Africa’s resources increases and the difference in their policies become more apparent. While tensions will naturally arise, as China and the U.S. both stake claims in different sectors of the African economy, the power of African nations to choose their business partners will increase. Through competition between these two economic giants, African nations can only become less dependent on one nation and more prosperous overall.
Elizabeth W. Pike ’15, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Holworthy Hall.
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