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Obama's trip to Africa a great learning opportunity for him

By Chen Weihua | China Daily USA | Updated: 2015-07-20 10:46

US President Barack Obama will take off later this week on a trip to Kenya and Ethiopia, his first trip to the two nations as president of the world's superpower.

Obama bypassed Kenya, his father's ancestral homeland, during a visit to the region in 2013, over concerns that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his vice-president William Ruto were facing charges by the International Criminal Court, charges that have since been dropped.

Mwangi Kimenyi, a senior fellow and former director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution who passed away on June 6, suggested in an article in February that Obama's upcoming trip to Africa should cover at least the countries of Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya. He described Obama's previous African destinations, such as Ghana, Egypt, Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa, as "safe bets" for meeting some peace and governance thresholds. He said Obama has avoided countries facing major challenges such as terrorism and poor governance records.

For a long while, many scholars, including Kimenyi, felt that the US under Obama was lagging behind countries such as China, India, Brazil and even Turkey in its engagement with Africa.

However, during his trip in 2013, Obama announced initiatives to deepen commercial relations and the launch of the first US-Africa Leaders Summit to be held in 2014, much like the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation started in 2000.

While the US Agency for International Development has been present in Ethiopia for a long time, Obama is sure to see the growing Chinese influence in the second-most populous African nation.

The impressive African Union headquarters Obama will visit in Addis Ababa was built as a gift from the Chinese government. Inaugurated in 2012, it has become a landmark in the Ethiopian capital.

Meanwhile, the light rail built by a Chinese company in Addis started a test run in February. The Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, parallel to an old railway route built a century ago, is also being built by a Chinese company and is expected to begin operation next year. Some 70 percent of the foreign trade of landlocked Ethiopia goes through the port of Djibouti.

In Addis, Obama is likely to see other signs of China's impact, such as the huge billboard by Chinese telecom giants Huawei Technologies and ZTE, which have been building telecom infrastructure there. There is also the Eastern Industrial Zone just outside Addis. As the first industrial zone in Ethiopia, it has drawn some 20 Chinese companies investing in a wide range of areas from autos to shoemaking, and creating thousands of sorely needed jobs for local people.

In Ethiopia, many Chinese investors feel they are seeing the China of the early 1980s, as it was about to embark on a three-decade run of double-digit economic growth.

While US leaders, such as Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have over the years tried to find fault with China's growing role in Africa, Yun Sun, a non-resident fellow of the African Growth Initiative at Brookings, believes the US and China have much to cooperate on in Africa.

In an article posted on the Brookings website in April, Sun said calls for the two to cooperate on security and development issues in Africa have been increasingly popular, citing the 6th China-US Africa Consultation held in Beijing last December that discussed cooperation on Ebola and other common regional threats.

At the 7th China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, US Secretary of State John Kerry cited the fight side-by-side against Ebola in Africa as one of the important cooperations between the two countries on global challenges.

But according to Sun, the few examples of collaboration are on the issues of the "lowest common denominator", or the most basic and least controversial ones, such as the flaring crisis in Sudan/South Sudan and Ebola.

"The logic of US-China cooperation in Africa is a sound one," Sun said.

"Both Beijing and Washington have important political and economic interests in promoting peace and development in Africa. The two countries' vested interests in Africa, particularly in commercial investment, make peace and stability imperative."

She believes as two responsible powers, China and the US carry a shared moral obligation to Africa. In cases such as South Sudan, both countries stand much to lose if the crisis continues to fester. Furthermore, a stable and prosperous Africa will provide both countries more investment and trade opportunities, which can enhance the momentum for their cooperation.

No one seems to be sure how much Obama will learn from this trip to Africa about the huge need and opportunity for China and the US to work together there.

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