ACCRA, Ghana — While U.S. President Barack Obama was shepherding his economic stimulus bill through Congress, Chinese President Hu Jintao was making his fourth trip to Africa.
Hu has been dishing out funds on the continent for years and doesn’t need name tags to work the greeting lines in African presidential palaces — some of which were built with Chinese money.
Obama may have his popularity and Kenyan heritage to advance American interests in Africa, but the United States increasingly finds itself competing with China when it comes to oil, influence and access to markets.
“The Chinese are not as familiar with Africa as the West,” said Kwame Pianim, an economist who ran for the presidency in Ghana last year. “They are the new boy on the block. But they are a fifth of the world’s population. Of course they are gaining influence. You cannot deny them.”
Obama will be closely watched in July during his scheduled two-day visit to Ghana. It’s his first presidential stop in sub-Saharan Africa. By comparison, Hu has visited 15 sub-Saharan states since 2004, not including several more when he was premier.
Observers want to know what America’s first black president has in mind for Africa. Under President George W. Bush, billions of dollars of development aid were available, but only for states that pledged to fight poverty and advance democracy.
China, meanwhile, isn’t changing its approach. The communist government, which complains about outside interference in its affairs at home, pledged to increase African aid, repressive regimes included, with no conditions attached.
At stake are Africa’s abundant resources, among them oil. China is second to the United States in oil consumption, but China’s consumption has doubled since 1996 and it relies on Africa for about one-third of its imported oil. The United States gets almost 25 percent of its imported oil from Africa, although by volume that’s still three times more than China's African oil intake.
The International Energy Agency projects China’s oil imports will increase four-fold by 2030. China’s state-owned energy company reportedly will bid for a stake of Ghana’s offshore oil, expected to flow in 2011. Other resources exported from Africa include timber, copper and diamonds.
Evidence of China’s charm offensive is all over the continent, by way of pet projects. Chinese funds have built presidential palaces in Mali, Togo, Namibia and Sudan, whose president has been charged with war crimes. They’ve built or are building soccer stadiums in Cameroon, Ghana, Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania, which Hu visited in February.
“The face-to-face discussions we have form a very important avenue for discussing and understanding each other, especially when it comes to supporting a project,” said Assah Mwambene, spokesman for Tanzania’s foreign affairs ministry.
Hu can’t match Obama’s star power — Africans name newborns “Barack” and sell Obama T-shirts — but he seemingly won’t be outworked.
The Chinese president visited four sub-Saharan states in February and spent nearly two weeks on the continent in 2007, when he visited eight nations. In 2006, Hu hosted 48 African leaders at a Beijing summit in which he pledged $5 billion in loans and credits for African states and Chinese businesses on the continent.
Bush, during eight years in office, made two African trips — three fewer than his wife, Laura Bush. Still, he’s remembered as a friend to Africa. Under Bush, the U.S. launched a $15 billion, five-year AIDS relief program and spent $1.2 billion fighting malaria in Africa.
While America requires those countries receiving poverty-reduction aid to implement democratic reforms, and its AIDS money required abstinence education, China gets criticized for coddling dictators like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, which supplies 7 percent of China’s oil imports.
“We have encouraged Beijing to be more transparent regarding their foreign assistance practices and to more fully engage with other major bilateral and multilateral actors to ensure that aid supports the efforts of responsible African governments to be responsive to their people’s needs,” said U.S. State Department spokesperson Amanda Harper.
He Wenping, director of African Studies at the state-affiliated think tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said China’s hands-off policy respects the sovereignty of states.
“(It’s) to show the full mutual respect and strong belief that Africans themselves could find their own way for their developing path,” she said. “It should be grown up from the soil in the country, not by imposing from the outsiders.”
The U.S.-China relationship in Africa can be cooperative. China was credited for pressuring Sudan to accept a peacekeeping force in its war-torn Darfur region. Americans and Chinese are both helping Liberia rebuild from its devastating civil war.
“As China’s presence on the continent expands, it will increasingly be expected to bolster indigenous capacity and contribute to long-term development and stability,” Harper said.
Among average Africans, America often is seen as the more helpful partner, according to survey results from Afrobarometer, a nonprofit polling project. In Ghana, nearly half of respondents said the U.S. helps Ghana “a lot,” while just one in four chose the same answer for China. The gap was the same in Kenya and wider for the U.S. in Tanzania and Uganda. In French-speaking Senegal, 33 percent said China helps “a lot” compared to 24 percent for America.
Pianim, the Ghanaian economist, doesn’t object to outsiders building palaces, arguing that when foreign dignitaries visit, “you don’t want to take them to a hut.”
Instead, he said, the focus should be on African leadership.
“Those who say China is gaining too much influence are paternalistic. It’s up to us to decide what type of collaborations we need,” he said. “In the final analysis, the leaders who make mistakes and throw away our resources cheaply because of a stadium or something, are going to pay for it.”
While Hu prefers lengthy trips, Obama’s first visit here will be just one overnight.
“It’s not important the amount of time that you spend here — it’s the quality of time,” Pianim said. "This is somebody whom the whole world is looking up to. Help us to strengthen the democratization process. That’s all we need from America.”
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