The United States and China are both investing in Africa but can’t seem to work together. Despite a few one-off examples, such as the recent Ebola crisis, the two biggest investors in the region hardly ever cooperate, and analysts say it’s getting in the way.
“China views development and foreign aid as practical policy instruments to promote political friendship and economic cooperation, while the U.S. attaches clearly stated goals, stringent conditions, and strict criteria to its development program,” wrote Yun Sun, a fellow at the Brookings Africa initiative, in a blog post this week. “In reality, these vast differences significantly limit the potential for U.S.-China cooperation.”
China has committed more than $11.9 billion to the country in the past decade. Though they’re both moving large amounts of money into the same places, each state works with different policies.
Last year, China became the continent’s largest trading partner, as trade expanded from $10 billion in 2000 to more than $200 billion in 2013, according to a report from Ernst & Young. Meanwhile, American trade volumes fell from $125 billion in 2011 to just $85 billion in 2013, according to U.S. trade data.
“While China does not allow political issues such as democratic or authoritarian systems to interfere with its pragmatic ties with African countries, the U.S. has strong value-oriented policies that prevent Washington from engaging regimes with poor human rights records,” Sun writes.
For this reason, Chinese companies have, in some cases, earned a reputation for being exploitative and garnered criticism from activists and policy experts.
President Barack Obama made a pointed comment about the difference between American and Chinese policy in Africa at a high-level conference. Though he didn’t mention Beijing specifically, the message was clear.
“We don’t simply want to extract minerals from the ground for our growth,” he said. “We want to build partnerships that create jobs and opportunity for all our peoples that unleash the next era of African growth.”
One of the most glaring cases of disparity between Chinese and American policy is in South Sudan. The new country, formed in 2011 and supported by the United States, has been in the grip of civil war since December 2013 that’s left thousands dead.
China has made massive investments in resources in South Sudan and is just as interested as its American counterpart in a peaceful solution. But because of their differing strategies, it’s not that simple, according to Sun.
“In cases such as South Sudan, both the U.S. and China stand much to lose if the crisis continues to fester,” Sun wrote. But “even in such a dire situation, U.S.-China cooperation is affected by the countries’ dissimilar views of Sudan.”
Both have major investments in South Sudan, though the American stakes are political, while for the Chinese they are economic. U.S. diplomats have proposed a United Nations sanctions regime in South Sudan, an idea that Chinese officials recently argued was illogical, according to a Reuters report.
This, according to Sun, is just one of many issues exemplifying the complicated nature of two countries working in the same place.
“Essentially, the U.S. and China are yet to see each other as genuine cooperation partners or friendly forces on many important issues due to their diverging perceptions and national interests," Sun wrote, adding that, unfortunately, cooperation is “unlikely to occur as long as the competitive perceptions of each other remain unchanged in Beijing and Washington.”