Thu, Dec 20, 2018 - Page 9 News List

The US’ moment of truth in Africa: It is losing out to China

By Mike Cohen, Samer Khalil, Al-Atrush, Henry Meyer and Margare  /  Bloomberg

When a press release announced that US National Security Adviser John Bolton would unveil a new US strategy for Africa, it raised the question: What was the old one?

From Algeria to Zimbabwe, the US risks losing sway over the 1.2 billion people who inhabit the world’s second-most populous continent. Bolton’s speech on Thursday last week acknowledged as much, as he framed the administration of US President Donald Trump’s strategic rethink around countering gains made by the nation’s primary geopolitical rivals.

“Africa is incredibly important,” Bolton said at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “If we didn’t understand it before, the competition posed by China and Russia and others should highlight that for us.”

However, much of the strategy Bolton laid out, including counterterrorism and overhauling foreign aid, might result in a more narrow focus on the continent.

Moreover, the administration’s trade initiatives would not arrive for years to come.

That means the US could miss investment opportunities in a region with the world’s fastest-growing middle class, a continent that would account for half of global population growth by 2050.

Led by Ghana and Kenya, African nations are stitching together a trade union designed to bolster intra-Africa commerce. The initiative has a long way to go, but if it can achieve critical mass, the continent’s combined GDP would be almost the size of Germany’s.

While the US sorts out its priorities, China has spent the past few years investing more on the continent — in physical and financial terms, as well as in so-called soft power. It has ramped up scholarships for African academics, deployed peacekeepers to UN missions in Mali and South Sudan, and sent scientists to help address key economic and social needs.

When Ivory Coast put out a tender to build a bridge over the lagoon in its commercial hub of Abidjan, 10 of the 18 companies that expressed interest were either Chinese firms or in partnership with them. None were from the US. China State Construction Engineering Corp got the deal.

Africa is a pivotal part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) Belt and Road Initiative, with Chinese-backed investments ranging from Ivory Coast power plants to a Rwandan airport and a railway in Kenya.

“There is no way that America can really compete with China,” said Robert Schrire, a political science professor at the University of Cape Town, who dismissed Bolton’s speech as “rhetorical swiping” at China and Russia.

“No real resources are going to flow” and those that do will probably be strategic, he said, targeted at places where the US has a military presence or terrorism concerns.

The US$191 million Ivory Coast bridge investment highlights how far ahead China is — now flexing its muscle in a part of Africa that until recently its businesspeople showed little interest in: the French-speaking west. The region’s fast-growing economies have also seen a spectacular rise in loans from China.

It is not that the US is not engaged with Africa. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, initiative has invested more than US$80 billion to fight HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, providing nearly 15 million people with life-saving drugs this year alone. Aid programs target agricultural productivity, healthcare systems and access to clean water.

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