China, US are trip­ping all over them­selves to be best friends to Africa

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Last week, U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama vis­ited Kenya, his fa­ther’s birthplace, for the first time since be­com­ing pres­i­dent in 2009. Also on his itin­er­ary was Ethiopia. It was the first time for a serv­ing Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to visit ei­ther coun­try.

In Kenya, he was given a tu­mul­tuous welcome and re­ceived as a na­tive son. He met with his sis­ter and sev­eral dozen other rel­a­tives. No doubt, the visit would have taken place ear­lier had it not been for do­mes­tic Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and charges that he had been born in Kenya, not the U.S.

In both Kenya and Ethiopia, Obama openly dis­cussed hu­man rights, in­clud­ing the rights of ho­mo­sex­u­als. It was a grand dis­play of up­hold­ing Amer­i­can val­ues, de­spite main­land China’s grow­ing in­roads into the con­ti­nent, to such an ex­tent that China’s trade with Africa now is triple that of the United States whereas, only 10 years ago, it was half the U.S. level.

Obama, keenly aware of this sit­u­a­tion, has been work­ing to en­hance Amer­ica’s eco­nomic re­la­tions with the con­ti­nent. Last year, for the first time, the United States in­vited dozens of African lead­ers for a sum­mit in Washington, in­clud­ing busi­ness lead­ers from both sides.

Last week in Nairobi, Obama took part in a U. S.- spon­sored busi­ness sum­mit where he hailed Africa as “one of the fastest grow­ing re­gions of the world.” He an­nounced more than US$1 bil­lion in start-up fi­nanc­ing for busi­nesses in Africa and promised to host another fo­rum in 2016 to “mo­bi­lize bil­lions of dol­lars in new trade and in­vest­ment.”

In a pre-trip in­ter­view with the BBC, Obama ac­knowl­edged that China had in re­cent years fun­neled “an aw­ful lot of money into Africa, ba­si­cally in ex­change for raw ma­te­ri­als.” He said that China used “the sur­plus that they’ve ac­cu­mu­lated in global trade and the fact that they’re not ac­count­able to their con­stituen­cies.”

Dur­ing his four- day African so­journ, Obama did not ex­plic­itly com­pare China and the U.S. In an ad­dress to “the peo­ple of Africa” at the African Union head­quar­ters in Ad­dis Ababa, he said it was a good thing “when more coun­tries in­vest re­spon­si­bly in Africa.” But, he said, “eco­nomic re­la­tion­ships can’t sim­ply be about build­ing coun­tries’ in­fra­struc­ture with for­eign la­bor or ex­tract­ing Africa’s nat­u­ral re­sources. Real eco­nomic part­ner­ships have to be a good deal for Africa — they have to cre­ate jobs and op­por­tu­ni­ties for Africans.”

Although he was clearly seek­ing African sup­port, Obama did not pull his punches, warn­ing Kenyans about their coun­try’s “cul­ture of cor­rup­tion” and be­rat­ing “bad tra­di­tions” such as fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion.

At a joint news con­fer­ence, Obama sup­ported gay and les­bian rights while Kenya’s pres­i­dent, Uhuru Keny­atta, in­sisted that “for Kenyans to­day, the is­sue of gay rights is re­ally a non-is­sue.”

In Ethiopia, where the gov­ern­ing party and its al­lies won 100 per­cent of seats in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in May, Obama sug­gested a need for demo­cratic re­forms.

Obama ob­served in the pres­ence of Prime Min­is­ter Haile­mariam De­salegn that “the gov­ern­ing party has sig­nif­i­cant breadth and pop­u­lar­ity” and pro­posed “ad­di­tional space for jour­nal­ists, for media, for op­po­si­tion voices.”

The Ethiopian leader did not con­tra­dict him, say­ing that his coun­try was “a fledg­ing democ­racy” that was “com­ing out of cen­turies of un­demo­cratic prac­tices and cul­ture.” He said that Ethiopia should “learn the best prac­tices of the United States and age-old democ­ra­cies, be­cause this is a process of learn­ing and do­ing.”

On the sur­face, at least, Obama got his mes­sage across in both Kenya and Ethiopia while main­tain­ing mu­tual good­will. His African her­itage no doubt helped.

Such a dis­cus­sion is unimag­in­able for Chi­nese l ead­ers, who have a pol­icy of non­in­ter­fer­ence in other coun­tries and who op­pose any per­ceived Amer­i­can lec­tur­ing on hu­man rights or democ­racy.

Although China was not men­tioned, its pres­ence was clearly felt. Re­spond­ing to a ques­tion, Keny­atta de­nied that Kenya was “look­ing East” but said that “we are look­ing to part­ner with our friends, old and new.”

The Chi­nese state media clearly saw the Obama trip as a chal­lenge. A Global Times com­men­tary said its pur­pose was to off­set “China’s grow­ing in­flu­ence and re­cov­er­ing past U.S. lever­age.”

Main­land China’s of­fi­cial Xin­hua News Agency de­clared: “The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s for­eign pol­icy to­ward Africa, like that of his white pre­de­ces­sors, has been a to­tal fail­ure.”

It con­cluded: “African peo­ple were fooled by the West be­fore, they will not be fooled again. If the U.S. and the West con­tinue to bring de­struc­tion and vi­o­lence to Africa ... they will be doomed through­out Africa in the end.”

Such di­a­tribes sug­gest weak­ness, not strength. Let the facts speak for them­selves. Africans can make their own de­ci­sions re­gard­ing whether to opt for democ­racy or au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. Frank.ching@gmail.com Twit­ter: @FrankChing1

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