A year ago, talking with Abe McLaughlin, Christian Science Monitor’s brilliant Africa correspondent, we both mentioned that we thought China’s role in Africa was an important and tragically undercovered story. Since that conversation, the story’s gotten a lot of ink, in part due to Abe’s reporting on the story… and in part because the story is becoming unavoidably huge. After his (diplomatically awkward) trip to the US, President Hu Jintao took an African tour that included Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya – though not Zimbabwe, where Mugabe has been assiduously cultivating Chinese support, or Sudan, where China has systematically blocked UN sanctions against Sudan, supplied the government with weaponry and invested heavily in the oil industry.
As Davide Berretta of Foreign Policy observes, Africa is the sole continent where the majority of the population views American influence in a positive light. BBC poling data offers a bit more insight on this phenomenon – US influence is viewed more positively in the five Anglophone nations listed and more negatively in the two Francophone nations. (Tanzania, a nation where the majority speaks Kiswahili and elites speak English, also polls pro-USA.)
This, to my mind, suggests an explanation slightly more complicated than a purely economic one. While the US periodically threatens to get serious about Africa, then forgets when a leader returns from a state visit, China is making systematic, major infrastructure investments that will have a far more transformative economic impact on the continent than modest packages of US aid. But the US is a dominant cultural exporter – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a corner of the continent where pirated US DVDs aren’t being screened to large, enthusiastic audiences. While the BBC is the most important non-local news source in most Anglophone nations, CNN is widely available and frequently watched. And far more Africans are queueing for American visas to make their forture and send money home than those emigrating to the People’s Republic of China.
Chippla, writing from Nigeria, identifies himself as a Sino-skeptic, but notes that China is making major inroads on the continent:
China is communist but most Africans, I believe, couldn’t give a damn about that. The United States, which trumpets democracy as the only acceptable form of government, has as its third largest trading partner, a communist nation! And history appears to be on the side of China. It never came to the African continent to buy slaves or exploit natural resources with the barrel of a gun, or to carry out atomic tests in the Sahara desert (as shameless France did in the 1960). But China must be aware of the fact that the silencing of opposition within it cannot go on for much longer.
Chippla notes that Nigeria appears to be “up for grabs” – while the US is increasingly dependent on oil from West Africa, the instability of countries like Nigeria appears to be an insumountable obstacle to major investment in the area. This doesn’t appear to be as serious an issue for the Chinese, who are making huge investments in the Nigerian oil sector at the same time that American companies are discovering their vulnerability to shutdowns and other actions in the Niger delta.
How long will the positive view of the USA in African nations last? If the Chinese become a dominant investor on the continent, will we see a shift in African alignment, from the US to China? And will anyone in the US notice before the oil and other natural resources in Africa are spoken for?