Scrambling for Africa

Photo by U.S. Army / CC BY 2.0
Photo by familymwr / CC BY 2.0

Last night, I had the supreme honor of getting to watch “The Chinese Restaurant” episode of Seinfeld while eating takeout – the leftovers from which I am eating right now for lunch – from a local Chinese restaurant.  It was pretty amazing.  To keep the theme going, I have decided to write about China today.

In particular, China in Africa.

Obama just wrapped up his last visit to Africa as president, leaving behind a legacy that has been characterized as unclear, unfinished, and mostly symbolic.  Of course, perceptions can deviate from policy, as his visit comes on the heels of a renewal of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which has increased trade and investment relations between the US and several African countries.

Still, a New York Times article today suggests that Obama’s explicit calls for further cooperation between the US and Africa come with implicit tones of competition between US and China for influence over the continent.  While the US seeks to engage the continent economically, its message is that such bilateral engagement provides a better long-term alternative for Africans when it comes to issues like human rights and democracy than engagement with China does.

Certainly the issue of Chinese engagement with Africa and questioning its long-term effects is nothing new to Western discourse.  In fact, the issue has garnered so much attention as to be the subject of a Wikipedia page, a Facebook page, and an ongoing forum at the Council on Foreign Relations.  Furthermore, a macro-historical view demonstrates that the African continent has always been at the center of great power politics, primarily through the processes of colonization and decolonization.

For international relations scholars, the Concert of Europe – wedged between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of World War I – is considered an era of relative peace on the European continent.  While some argue that European states maintained a stable balance of power through effective diplomacy and the need to focus on domestic political concerns, others theorize that the processes of colonization is actually what kept peace in Europe.  Endowed with sovereignty by the Treaties of Westphalia, European states formed permanent national militaries and market economies during the throes of the First Industrial Revolution.  Since the militaries needed something to do and industrialization demanded more raw materials, European states deployed their militaries to far-flung lands in a search for resources.  Instead of engaging in skirmishes among one among one another on their own continent, European states brought their war-making and state-making to bear in a Scramble for Africa.

Oddly enough, another era of relative peace in the international system – the Cold War – can be attributed to the reversal of this process.  As one of the first tasks for the newly formed United Nations, decolonization carried out by the Trusteeship Council left behind scores of new independent states where there once were colonies.  These newly independent states offered outlets for competition between the US and the Soviet Union as each fought for influence over the former colonies.  While history textbooks highlight the wars fought in Asia, proxy wars and anti-colonial conflicts also took place in Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Somalia.  Once again, direct violent conflict between major world powers was avoided due to the instrumental role played by Africa.

As such, it is no surprise to students of international history that Africa once again plays this instrumental role among the contemporary major world powers – the US and China.  Due to this history, Western powers are on high alert for anything that smacks of neocolonialism.  The question is whether this new and seemingly benign (relative to colonization and Cold War proxy politics) scramble for Africa replays the familiar dynamics in which the global periphery is exploited by the great powers acting on behalf of their national interests.

The US claims that Chinese engagement in Africa smacks of neocolonialism because China, primarily concerned with ascertaining raw materials (much like European powers during the Industrial Revolution), forge transnational relationships with political and business elites in African countries.  China provides investment and infrastructure development in exchange for access to these raw materials, but exploits the materials in a way that provides little in the way of spillover benefits for local Africans.

China claims that US engagement in Africa smacks of neocolonialism because the US demands that African governments engage in political reforms intended to promote “good governance” and “human rights,” terms that China equates with a neo-imperialist diffusion of Western ideology.  China claims that its engagement in economic development – as opposed to the engagement of Western-aligned international financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank – come with “no strings attached.”

So, is the US a better partner for Africa?  The answer ultimately depends on aspects of US engagement with the continent beyond ideological motivations.  While the US has sought to promote human rights and good governance, the track record is mixed at best.  Effectiveness matters just as much – if not more than – ideology.  What is likely attractive about Chinese engagement is its narrow focus on economics and its ruthless pragmatism therein.  And while the growth of Chinese engagement in Africa garners much attention, evidence suggests that Africa is still a stage with many actors and that the threat of Chinese dominance over the continent is likely overblown.

Nonetheless, the US appears to be scrambling to develop a convincing response to growing Chinese influence in the region – a move that arguably has more to do with relations with China than with Africa itself.

I welcome any comments.  Just remember to heed the words of George Costanza.


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