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China’s Expansion in Africa: Opportunity for the U.S (An Op-Ed Rebuttal to Ahmed Sirleaf)

China’s Expansion in Africa: Opportunity for the U.S (An Op-Ed Rebuttal to Ahmed Sirleaf)

(Dec 30, 2011) By: Peter Ehresmann
Despite fear, criticism, and the sensationalizing of China’s expansion in Africa in popular media, it is time for the U.S. to engage China in Africa as a strategic partner, not as a strategic enemy.  

It’s true that China-Africa trade grew over ten-fold from 2000 (US$10.6 billion) to 2010 (US$115 billion). Most of this trade consists of Chinese companies extracting natural resources, especially oil (62%) and metals (17%), used for manufacturing in China.  

Sound scary? What you may not know is that the U.S. has also expanded trade with Africa over the same time period facilitated by the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) of 2000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, America’s expansion mirrors China’s, having tripled from $38.5 billion in 2000 to $113 billion in 2010, just $2 billion behind China. And don’t forget that the ravenous Red Dragon uses a sizable amount of those resources to manufacture and ship exports to the West. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, 91% of U.S.-Africa trade is oil imports compared to only 62% of China-Africa trade. Who is scarier?  

Western media and scholars tend to focus on and sensationalize the negative aspects of China in Africa leading to the creation of myths mixed with realities. While the criticisms usually hold some truth, the full story is often not told or unknown. The reality reveals a common theme that the U.S. and Western institutions are often guilty of similar bad practices in Africa.                                 

Consider how the West often criticizes China for obstructing transparency and giving loans to corrupt governments. One example highlighted by Dr. Deborah Brautigam in her book, The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (one of the few reliable books on China in Africa based on some three decades of scholarship), is Angola after their civil war in 2002. The Western story says the IMF was pressuring Angola to improve transparency before giving them a loan, but China arrived with a no-strings-attached loan, thwarting the West’s righteous effort. In reality however, Germany had broken from the joint IMF effort first and settled a debt reduction unilaterally, allowing German companies to return to Angola and then extended additional export credits. Soon after, a French bank gave another large loan to Angola. This all happened before China offered their loan. Afterwards, U.S., French, and Scottish banks also offered loans to Angola outside the IMF. But only China made the news as the bad guy.   

As for Darfur, although China was working with the Sudanese government, ultimately China did give into international pressure in 2008 and sent Sudan a strong message to allow peace keeping troops. It is incredible that China actually broke from its core foreign policy of non-intervention in local politics, but this is lost in the Western perspective. 

As the world continues moving towards greater multilateralism with shared international standards, it is essential to continue taking steps with China to integrate them more completely into the cooperative international community. To not do so is to invite conflict in the long-term and squander our opportunity to positively influence China while we can. 

The U.S., its agencies, NGOs, and private companies all have valuable lessons to bring to the table. Chinese organizations also have valuable and often different lessons to bring to the table. Together with African organizations, a triangulated partnership with the U.S. and China would be a promising and productive coalition to meeting the U.S. interests of promoting stability, free markets, poverty eradication, and cooperation in regional security and energy development in Africa. As for promoting democracy, freedom, human rights, and pluralistic and prosperous societies, the U.S. will have to make special effort to work with China given differences of opinion, but ideally increasingly so. The more the U.S. collaborates with China, the sooner even these areas will change in China. 

China has been in Africa since the 1400s and is not going away. They have invested both experimentally and strategically and are in for the long haul. While the U.S. and Europe have consistently floundered with changing international development strategies, China has also experimented and discovered some strategies that work; approaches that are continuing to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and are providing the lion’s share of the world’s progress on the Millennium Development Goals.  

Will all of China’s approaches work in Africa? No. Have some of them? Yes. Have all of the U.S. and Western approaches worked in Africa? No. Have some of them? Yes. Can Africa learn from both the U.S. AND China? Yes. Should African countries be free to find their own path out of poverty? Yes. There is no silver bullet to Africa’s poverty and development challenges. What’s more, the U.S. will be better able to assist Africa by positively engaging with China through dialog, sharing lessons learned, and collaboration.  

If the U.S. sees China as an enemy, they will become our enemy. If the U.S. shows China it expects a globally responsible partner, there’s a good chance China will grow into that role. Africa just may be the best venue for that to happen.  Click Here to read Ahmed Sirleaf’s Article. 

Editor’s Note: Peter Ehresmann is a graduate student earning a Master of International Development Practice (MDP) at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and is the president of the graduate student organization, IPID - Interdisciplinary Perspectives on International Development. Peter lived in China for four years teaching university English in Jilin City and Beijing. He also spent a summer in Nairobi Kenya researching for his undergraduate honors thesis on the UN-Habitat/Government of Kenya Slum Upgrading Programme in Kibera. He most recently spent summer 2011 in Cairo Egypt researching solid waste management and recycling. He can be reached at



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