WASHNINGTON — After a decade of focusing on the Middle East, the Obama administration has promised a “pivot to Asia” that would increase diplomatic and economic attention on US interests in the Pacific region.
This pivot is a result of Washington’s increasing concerns about the rising military and economic power of the People’s Republic of China. President Obama’s recent tour through Asia, which took him to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, was a traditional measure of reassuring regional allies of the US commitment to the region.
To truly counter China’s growing economic power, however, the US should be looking to Africa.
China has pursued relationships with many African regimes whose interests run counter to those of the US. Nowhere is this more evident than its historical coziness with the Al-Bashir regime in Sudan. China has been Sudan’s largest trading partner, the largest investor in South-Sudan’s oil infrastructure and the largest importer of Sudanese oil.
The tug-of-war over oil resources in the Sudan has been a major contributor to the deteriorating situation in South Sudan. To make matters worse, China has significantly expanded exports of small arms and weaponry to Sudan over the last decade, with predictably dire consequences.
In Zimbabwe, China’s long history of influence and resource exploitation dates back to the Rhodesian war, a conflict between the minority-led white government of Rhodesia and nationalist organizations led by black Rhodesians.
China’s backing of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), led by Robert Mugabe, included supplying weapons and funding as well as the training of ZANU forces in China. After the war ended and Mugabe was elected Prime Minister in 1980, China’s support was amply rewarded by trade.
Recently, the South China Morning Post reported that the Chinese and Zimbabwean governments are negotiating a package to trade billions of dollars in aid to Zimbabwe for additional mineral rights for Chinese companies.
China’s drive to expand trade across the continent is motivated by an insatiable hunger for natural resources. More than 2,500 Chinese companies have flooded Africa across such industry sectors as mining, infrastructure, tobacco and logging. As a result, last year China-Africa trade reached $210 billion. China has become Africa’s largest trading partner, accounting for a 17 percent share of total trade and a 16 percent share of total foreign investment. In turn, China’s perpetual economic growth and expanding political influence have been fueled by these investments in Africa.
Last June, while in Cape Town, President Obama announced that he would be holding the first ever United States-Africa Leader Summit. The summit, which is scheduled to begin August 3, will bring the leaders of 47 African countries to the White House to “advance the Administration’s focus on trade and investment in Africa, and highlight America’s commitment to Africa’s security, its democratic development and its people.”
Notably, two of the leaders left off the invite list were Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Sudan’s Al-Bashir. In response, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Information, Jonathan Moyo, claimed, “It is a non-issue to us,” adding, “We understand this to be America pursuing its interests, afraid that China has made headway.”
This is, perhaps, more true than US diplomats would like to admit. A study published last year by professors Gustavo A. Flores-Macias and Sarah E. Kreps of Cornell University in the Journal of Politics shows a clear relationship between African nations’ expanded trade with China and their voting record in the United Nations.
According to the study, “The more states trade with China, the more likely they are to converge with it on issues of foreign policy.”
According to the authors, “This has implications for the United States, whose foreign policy preferences have diverged from those of China during the period of study and who may find it harder to attract allies in international forums.”
President Obama’s upcoming overture to African leadership has not gone unnoticed by China. Last week, China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang arrived in Ethiopia for a four-country tour of Africa, calling for deeper ties with his country. Prime Minister Keqiang also announced an extra aid package worth over $12 billion at the Organization of African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa.
This new package comes in addition to $20 billion in loans offered in March 2013 by President Xi Jinping, when he visited three African nations as part of his inaugural overseas tour. That offer of aid alone, to be disbursed between 2013 to 2015, doubled Chinese foreign aid on the continent, up from $10 billion in loan financing made available to Africa from between 2009 to 2012.
These massive amounts show a clear foreign policy agenda: China is earmarking more than half of its foreign aid for Africa.
If the upcoming “pivot to Asia” by the United States is intended to counteract China’s growing influence and economic power, the US will have to do more than engage traditional Asia-Pacific allies and conduct additional military exercises. The true pivot to Asia, and the one that could effectively counter growing Chinese influence and economic power, would be for the US to invest in stronger relationships with Africa.
Adam Tiffen is a co-founder of Tri-Star Collaborative, a firm specializing in sustainable development in emerging markets and post-conflict environments. He is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council and a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.