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President Obama's trip to Africa is an overdue bid to play catch-up

By Chen Weihua | China Daily | Updated: 2013-07-03 11:26

President Obama's trip to Africa is an overdue bid to play catch-up

US President Barack Obama wrapped up his one-week trip to Africa on Tuesday to find that his country has a lot of catching up to do on the increasingly dynamic continent, where emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil and Turkey have been rapidly expanding their footprint.

As the first African American president of a country where 13 percent of the population traces its roots to Africa, this was nevertheless Obama's first presidential trip there (aside from a brief stop in Ghana in 2009).

Obama's Sunday announcement of $7 billion in aid to help fight frequent power outages in sub-Saharan Africa over a period of five years has been widely regarded a highlight of the three-nation tour of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. US media, however, largely described the trip as being overshadowed by the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar), which was launched by President George W. Bush a decade ago to help fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. That plan included funding of $15 billion over a five-year period and was renewed in 2008.

Unlike the usual US focus on fighting terrorism in Africa, Obama's trip this time was joined by hundreds of top business leaders at various stops aimed at boosting US trade and investment in the region, which boasts six of the world's 10 fastest growing economies.

In 2009, China overtook the US as Africa's largest trading partner. China's $200 billion trade with Africa last year was more than double that of the US. Both nations imported large amounts of gas and oil from the continent.

Meanwhile, China has been building roads, bridges, airports and other infrastructure improvements across Africa. Its investment in manufacturing there has equaled its stake in mining, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

Seeing the growing presence of China and other emerging economies in Africa, Obama said he doesn't feel threatened by the fact that other countries, led by China, are investing in Africa.

Obama was asked by a student on Saturday about his feelings on China's competition. "While we look at what other countries are doing in Africa, I think our only advice is make sure it's a good deal for Africa," he said. "If someone says they want to come build something here, are they hiring African workers?

"If somebody says that they want to help you develop your natural resources, how much of the money is staying in Africa?" he added, implying that there has been criticism that some Chinese firms bring their own workers for their projects in Africa.

Mwangi Kimenyi, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, described Obama's visit as a "guilt trip", saying that Africans have grown increasingly critical of Obama's limited interest in the continent over the last four and a half years.

"Unfortunately, this trip is unlikely to change the prevailing view among Africans that Obama is out of touch with the new realities of an emerging Africa," Kimenyi wrote in an op-ed piece last week.

A Gallup poll released at the start of Obama's trip showed that approval of US leadership had fallen in the three African countries he was visiting.

"This trip has given him an opportunity to show that Africa is still on his radar but we have to wait and see what comes out of it. He has signaled some small interest, which is still far short of other countries'," Kimenyi told China Daily.

By way of contrast Kimenyi mentioned former Chinese President Hu Jintao, who visited 17 African nations in a single 10-month stretch between 2006 and 2007, and top Chinese leaders, including the president, vice president, premier, vice premier, cabinet ministers and Communist Party officials, who have visited around 30 African countries in the past five years.

Chinese President Xi Jinping made a six-day visit to Africa only two weeks after taking office as the head of state in March, taking him to Tanzania, Republic of Congo and South Africa, two of which Obama also visited this time.

"I have a very deep feeling that Africa is a continent full of vitality and hope No matter how the international situation will change, China is always Africa's all-weather friend and partner," Xi said during the trip.

Kimenyi pointed out while some aspects of China-Africa relations need to improve, US companies are not angels and have in the past operated opaquely.

"They are in fact responsible for the destruction of the Nile Delta on account of irresponsible environmental standards," he said, adding that Africans must do better in all their deals with investors.

He disagreed with the suggestion that China does not help Africans. "China works with Africans and we have seen major opportunities opening up because of China," he said.

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