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U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit: An echo of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation?

As the dust settles on the US-Africa Leaders Summit convened by President Barack Obama in Washington between 4 August and 6 August 2014, time is ripe for a retrospective analysis of how the event fared vis-à-vis similar recent geo-political jamborees targeted at African leaders, writes Bob Wekesa. It might seem like a myopic game of checkers to hold up the US-Africa summit against other summit diplomacy such as Japan’s Tokyo International Conference on Africa’s Development (TICAD), China’s Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) or the EU-Africa summit, but for realists, this is just how the world is shaping up. Gone are the days when the world’s largest superpower courting Africa could eclipse the continent’s relationship with other powers, not least of all China, whose powerful diplomacy seems to frame virtually all analysis of the US-Africa Leaders Summit. This article was first published by the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The global market in Africa Forums
From the international relations theory of balance of power, we learn that Africa has long been the playground for global powers keen to play turf wars in search of pre-eminence in global politics. When Japan created TICAD in 1993, it very much sought just this kind of pre-eminence in a globalising world, but added a more “bread and butter” dimension – doing business with Africa. Since its formative years two decades ago, TICAD seems to have fallen by the wayside without so much as a whimper (although it is showing recent signs of revival). But  one country, then rapidly emerging as a global power, seems to have noticed Japan’s strategy in and for Africa. This was indeed China.

Noticeably, former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin made a tour of a select number of African countries during which the idea for the establishment of bilateral-cum-multilateral Africa-China agency was broached. This came to pass in 2000 when FOCAC was rolled out in a rather low-key version in an echo to reformist Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s idiom that China should experiment and therefore “cross the river while feeling the stones”. Metaphorically speaking, the river was crossed when Beijing hosted 48 African leaders at the third FOCAC summit, one that had analysts around the world sitting up in their chairs. The icing on the cake for China was the momentous revelation that China had surpassed the USA as Africa’s number one trading partner in 2009.

Since then, the USA has been grappling for a response to China’s rise in Africa. Of course, it would be naïve in the extreme to imagine that the USA had not quite noticed China’s increased influence in Africa. One of the earliest indicators of USA’s concern over China in Africa in recent times was the 2005 US Congress hearings entitled, well, “China’s Influence in Africa”. This was followed by a raft of similar legislative activity by both the US Congress and Senate, the reading of which confirms US politicians’ alarm over China’s penetration deep into the African continent’s socio-economic and increasingly, security spheres. Attendant to all this has been a depressing discussion from US intelligentsia around the topic of the USA’s supposed decline against a rising China with Africa as a ready exemplar. Ultimately, the Obama administration formulated an African policy – the first of its kind – in June 2012, a couple of weeks to the fifth FOCAC conference.

America draws some lessons from China…
The point to make here is that the USA seems to have learned a lesson or two from China. One such lesson is that the Chinese state-party machinery is quite adept at cultivating contacts with African elites. This could explain last June’s visit to Africa by President Obama – three months after president Xi Jinping’s own visit – as well as the recent heightened high level visit by US officials. A second lesson the USA might have taken home from Chinese engagements in Africa was the value of seeing Africa as a single entity and following up with conferences that serve multiple purposes – deal making occasions, opportunity to project solidarity, events to lavish “soft power” on sometimes self-aggrandising African strongmen.

To appreciate USA’s emulation of China in terms of seeing Africa as one, consider the fact that while US policy manoeuvres in Africa often distinguish sub-Saharan Africa from northern Africa, last week’s summit glossed over such separation. An extension of this unitary approach can be seen in Obama’s abandoning the USA’s preoccupation with governance issues to lay out the red carpet and dine with some African leaders considered human rights abusers. This is a powerful indicator of a changing US foreign policy in Africa, if ever there was any.

…and makes up the rest itself
However, while parallels can be drawn between the US-Africa Leaders Summit and FOCAC, there are crucial areas in which the two events and the policies that undergird them diverge. Comment has been made of the fact that Obama did not have a one-on-one with the African leaders as Chinese leaders often do during FOCAC summit. The USA seems to have made up for this lapse in “African protocol” by bringing on board former presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter as well as high profile American personalities from African American politicians to artists such as Lionel Richie and business magnets-cum-politicians such as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. The preponderance of American celebrities of all shades, their spouses in toe, hobnobbing with the like of Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, is perhaps a crucial area in which the USA enjoys an upper hand over China.

A second point to consider is that unlike the highly choreographed FOCAC summit that comes complete with promulgations and action plans, the US counterpart had a certain feel of informality with no major review of relations or forward looking statements read out. While the informality might count as camaraderie, it misses out on a clear path into the future. Indeed, the announcement of the reported US$ 33 billion war chest, earmarked mostly for Africa’s energy sector, seems to have lost its punch in comparison with similar figures announced by Beijing during their FOCAC summits.

As intellectual analysis kicks in, questions remain if the US-Africa summit will be institutionalised in the way FOCAC has, and if so, if the summits will be held alternately between the USA and Africa. It is indeed interesting times for Africa. Clearly, the recent summit has brought the USA back into play in Africa and much ink will be spilled over how China and the USA are courting a coy Africa.

Bob Wekesa is a research associate with the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project. He is also a PhD candidate at the Communication University of China.

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