US-Africa Lead­ers Sum­mit raises hope

China Daily (Canada) - - SPECIAL - By BOB WEKESA For China Daily

As the US-Africa Lead­ers Sum­mit opened in Wash­ing­ton on Aug 4, ex­pec­ta­tions for the meet­ing, which in­cluded 50-odd African heads of state and the US Pres­i­dent, were sky high. It was, af­ter all, the first ever con­fer­ence be­tween the US and Africa and thus sig­naled a mo­men­tous shift of US for­eign pol­icy.

The fact that most analy­ses of the sum­mit have looked at how the world’s first and sec­ond largest economies play out on the world’s least de­vel­oped con­ti­nent points to the sig­nif­i­cance of China-Africa re­la­tions. De­spite stren­u­ous de­nials to the con­trary by US officials, an­a­lysts from the me­dia, academia and think tanks have framed the sum­mit as the US’ strat­egy to catch up with China in Africa.

Such analy­ses are not off the mark con­sid­er­ing that, un­der the Fo­rum on China Africa Co­op­er­a­tion (FOCAC), China and Africa have held five con­sec­u­tive con­fer­ences since 2000. In­deed the US-Africa sum­mit had the hall­marks of FOCAC in a man­ner sug­gest­ing the US bor­row from China: sig­na­ture projects, es­pe­cially the Power Africa Ini­tia­tive, an en­ergy deal; pres­i­den­tial photo-ops; nu­mer­ous side line events, no­tably a busi­ness fo­rum presided over by for­mer New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and a US-Africa first lady’s sym­po­sium con­vened by Michelle Obama and for­mer first lady Laura Bush.

If one swapped the main and aux­il­iary events at the US-Africa sum­mit with FOCAC events you could be ex­cused for imag­in­ing be­ing in Bei­jing in July 2012 when the last FOCAC con­fer­ence was held. One among many dif­fer­ences is that un­like FOCAC, the US-Africa sum­mit was com­par­a­tively short on re­view of the re­la­tions in the re­cent past. This could be be­cause, un­der FOCAC, Chi­naAfrica re­la­tions have ratch­eted year-on-year such that the lead­ers can con­fi­dently as­sess achieve­ments across trade and eco­nom­ics, in­fra­struc­ture devel­op­ment and peace­keep­ing, cul­ture and diplomacy. On the other hand, US in­flu­ence in Africa, es­pe­cially in mat­ters eco­nomic, has been de­clin­ing, so much so that there was not much of an up­beat story to tell.

The launch of FOCAC in 2000 co­in­cided with for­mer US pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s in­au­gu­ra­tion of the African Growth Op­por­tu­nity Act (AGOA), an im­port-ex­port sub­sti­tu­tion that was meant to im­prove the busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment in Africa. For years, AGOA was seen as the counter to FOCAC, but it has had com­par­a­tively lim­ited suc­cess and has now been sub­sumed into the emerg­ing “US re­bal­ance to Africa” strat­egy.

In fo­cus­ing on cur­rent de­vel­op­ments, most an­a­lysts seem to have glossed over ev­i­dence that the US has been strug­gling to piece to­gether a co­gent re­sponse to re­claim its for­mer po­si­tion in all sec­tors of Africa for nearly a decade now. A win­dow into US in­tent to main­tain its lead­er­ship in Africa by check­mat­ing China can be seen in the US con­gres­sional hear­ings over the past decade.

Prob­a­bly one of the ear­li­est leg­isla­tive re­sponses in these re­spects is the July 2005 US congress hear­ings, tellingly ti­tled China’s Grow­ing Global In­flu­ence. Dur­ing that hear­ing the US-China Eco­nomic and Se­cu­rity Re­view Com­mis­sion tes­ti­fied that “there (was) go­ing to be an el­e­ment of com­pe­ti­tion be­tween China and the United States in Africa over ac­cess to nat­u­ral re­sources, win­ning of com­mer­cial ten­ders, and even African sup­port for oc­ca­sional dif­fer­ent po­si­tions on po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and so­cial is­sues in in­ter­na­tional fo­rums”.

The rec­om­men­da­tions of that hear­ing were that the US should be pre­pared to com­pete with China in Africa, but also es­tab­lish di­a­logue and “rules of the road” for co­op­er­a­tion. How­ever, it ap­pears that com­pe­ti­tion won over co­op­er­a­tion.

In June 2008, the US se­nate for­eign re­la­tions com­mit­tee — then chaired of Joe Bi­den, now vice-pres­i­dent as a mem­ber — con­vened un­der a more fo­cused head­line, China in Africa: im­pli­ca­tions for US pol­icy. Rus­sell Fein­gold, now the US spe­cial en­voy to Africa’s Great Lakes Re­gion, who was then se­na­tor for Wis­con­sin, ac­knowl­edged at this hear­ing the in­ter­est gen­er­ated by the Bei­jing FOCAC sum­mit of 2006. In­deed, it is the 2006 FOCAC sum­mit that has been men­tioned as a cut­tingedge event pre­cisely be­cause it was at­tended by 48 African lead­ers — a first.

An im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tion of­fered by state de­part­ment officials was that China’s in­ter­ests in Africa needed to be seen in the con­text of “China’s rise”. This per­spec­tive was echoed by El­iz­a­beth Econ­omy, who then as now, sits on the in­flu­en­tial New York think tank the Coun­cil of For­eign Re­la­tions.

In 2011, the se­nate once more held ses­sions on China-Africa re­la­tions, with pan­elists in­clud­ing well re­garded US China-Africa schol­ars, am­bas­sador David Shinn of Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity and Pro­fes­sor Deb­o­rah Brautigam of Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity. Shinn’s and Brautigam’s pre­sen­ta­tions were much more even keeled, both point­ing out myths and ex­ag­ger­a­tions in the re­la­tions while propos­ing ar­eas of po­ten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tion such as in the health and peace­keep­ing fields. The one point on which Shinn, Brautigam as well as Stephen Hayes, CEO of the Cor­po­rate Coun­cil on Africa, con­curred was that China had a more elab­o­rate and well -re­sourced diplomatic mech­a­nism in Africa than the US.

It is worth not­ing that the 2011 se­nate panels were held as the cur­rent US Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry was chair­man of the se­nate for­eign re­la­tions com­mit­tee.

A March 2012 con­gres­sional dis­cus­sion seems to have so­lid­i­fied US strat­egy for reen­gage­ment in Africa given that it was shortly fol­lowed by the re­lease of the first ever USAfrica pol­icy in an echo to the China-Africa pol­icy that was pub­lished in 2006. Pun­dits were quick to read an at­tempt to counter China in the fact that the US-Africa pol­icy was timed to be is­sued in June 2012, a month be­fore the 2012 FOCAC con­fer­ence.

The up­shot is that the Au­gust 4-6 US-Africa sum­mit is the cul­mi­na­tion of years of US pol­icy for­mu­la­tion and im­ple­men­ta­tion at the heart of its gov­er­nance sys­tem. For­mer US pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush fa­mously said that he did “not view Africa as a zero-sum for China and the United States” dur­ing a tour of Africa in 2008, a per­spec­tive Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has enun­ci­ated time and again.

How­ever, the fact that Bi­den, Kerry and Obama him­self sat on the for­eign re­la­tions com­mit­tee in a pe­riod when themes around im­pli­ca­tions of China in Africa for the US were be­ing worked out tells a dif­fer­ent story. It would not be far-fetched to con­clude the three top US lead­ers learned deep lessons from China’s en­gage­ments in Africa dur­ing their ten­ure in the se­nate, lessons they are now im­ple­ment­ing as wield­ers of ex­ec­u­tive power.

The US-Africa sum­mit mir­rors FOCAC on many fronts. A lu­cid ex­am­ple is the sym­bol­ism and po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal in­her­ent in tak­ing 50 African lead­ers to Wash­ing­ton, which strikes a chord with FOCAC events, par­tic­u­larly the 2006 event.

How­ever, the US-Africa sum­mit is not ex­actly a cut and paste counter to FOCAC. Be­fore the sum­mit, for in­stance, Wash­ing­ton­based think tank Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion rec­om­mended that the sum­mit come up with a joint com­mu­nique and ac­tion. This coun­sel seems to have gone un­heeded as the event ended more with African lead­ers lis­ten­ing to Obama than mak­ing joint dec­la­ra­tions. Ob­servers have pointed out that fail­ure to demon­strate joint own­er­ship of the event might not sit well with African lead­ers who are fa­mil­iar with the FOCAC mech­a­nism that has an in­built col­lec­tive ap­proach.

A sec­ond point of note is a pro­to­col is­sue that was first raised by Hayes, head of per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant US busi­ness lobby to­wards Africa, the Cor­po­rate Coun­cil on Africa, be­fore the event. In an opinion ar­ti­cle, Hayes ar­gued that fail­ure by Obama to have an in­ter­ac­tive di­a­logue with each, or at least a sub­stan­tial num­ber, of the African lead­ers would not go down well. This coun­cil also fell with­out a ripple in stark con­trast to the af­fa­bil­ity of for­mer Chi­nese pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao shak­ing hands with African lead­ers and en­gag­ing in per­son­al­ized dis­cus­sions dur­ing past FOCAC events.

A third ex­em­plar of the points of de­par­ture be­tween the US and the Chi­nese ap­proach is the fact that the US-Africa sum­mit seems to have been crafted as an event rather than a con­tin­u­ing process. By con­trast, FOCAC has a num­ber of or­ga­ni­za­tional agen­cies, key among them the Chi­nese and African min­is­te­rial com­mit­tee as well as fol­low-up en­ti­ties. There are many more dif­fer­ences.

Now that the US seems to have re­cal­i­brated its strat­egy to­wards Africa, a ques­tion worth pos­ing is whether there is room for a trilateral co­op­er­a­tion as schol­ars, such as Pro­fes­sor Li An­shan of Pek­ing Univer­sity and for­mer US am­bas­sador to South Africa and Nige­ria Prince­ton Ly­man, have pro­posed. Through­out US con­gres­sional de­lib­er­a­tions, a com­mon thread has been the pos­si­bil­ity of the world’s lead­ing economies forg­ing ties with Africa by lever­ag­ing their com­par­a­tive ad­van­tages.

As the US strat­egy to­wards Africa be­gins to take shape, just such a pro­posal ap­pears to be an idea whose time has come. Might the US-China Strate­gic and Eco­nomic Di­a­logue mech­a­nism be a start­ing point for reap­ing the ben­e­fits of col­lab­o­ra­tion, while agree­ing that com­pe­ti­tion is not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing? Con­tact the writer at read­ers@chi­nadai­lyusa. com


Lead­ers from Africa na­tions par­tic­i­pate in a ses­sion hosted by US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama (cen­ter) dur­ing the US-Africa Lead­ers Sum­mit on Aug 6 at the State De­part­ment in Wash­ing­ton.


Kenya’s Pres­i­dent Uhuru Keny­atta (left) and Tan­za­nia’s Pres­i­dent Jakaya Kik­wete at­tend in a round­table dis­cus­sion with Amer­i­can and African busi­ness lead­ers at the US Cham­ber of Com­merce in Wash­ing­ton on Aug 7.

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