Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Building trust in Africa

By He Wenping (China Daily) Updated: 2012-08-16 08:17

China and the US can cooperate to help African countries create a secure and stable environment for development

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finished a nine-nation visit to sub-Saharan Africa in early August. Apart from pursuing the Obama administration's new strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa, which was unveiled in the middle of June, Clinton's visit has also been widely interpreted as an attempt to counter China's influence in Africa.

In a speech in Senegal, the first stop on her tour, Clinton warned African leaders about cooperating with countries that seek to exploit the continent's resources and sought to sell the United States' approach to Africa by claiming it "adds value rather than extracts it". Although she didn't name China, her implication is that China has been extracting Africa's wealth for itself.

This is not the first time that Clinton has lashed out at China's presence in Africa. In June last year, during her visit to Zambia, Clinton accused China of neo-colonialism. And in a recent tour of China's neighbors in early July, she criticized China's development and investment model.

Clinton's words are obviously not playing a constructive role in promoting China-US cooperation in Africa. In recent years, the bilateral relationship between China and the US has experienced lots of twist and turns. This year, with the US "pivoting" - or "rebalancing" as it now likes to call it - to Asia and its increasing involvement in the South China Sea issue, China-US relations have sunk to a low point in the past decade. But a relationship based on mutual trust would serve as a solid foundation for China-US coordination and cooperation in Africa. Without this, it will be extremely difficult, and probably impossible, to push any substantive trilateral dialogue forward.

However, Africa is an ideal place for the United States and China to reduce mutual suspicion, while at the same time benefiting African countries. By moving forward, no matter how small the step is and how tiny the pilot project is, the cooperative intention and goodwill can be released, which will also boost the China-US relationship in general.

Different from Clinton's remarks in Africa, the White House Deputy National Security Adviser Michael Froman said in a speech at the Center for Global Development on July 31 that the US regards China a potential partner for promoting African development. "The US welcomes Chinese engagement in Africa" and "there is room for both China and the US in Africa", he said. It will be beneficial for China-US cooperation in Africa if this becomes the mainstream point of view in the US. Finger-pointing and blaming each other will only harm relations between China and the US and African development as a whole.

Actually, by taking a close look at the Obama administration's new strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa and the five priority areas outlined by President Hu Jintao at the fifth Forum of China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing, July 19-20, we can see some important areas of convergence in the two countries' policies toward Africa.

The new US sub-Saharan Africa strategy sets forth four strategic objectives: strengthening democratic institutions; spurring economic growth, trade and investment; advancing peace and security; and promoting opportunity and development. And China intends to focus on five priority areas in the coming three years: increased investment and finance; development assistance aimed at improving African people's livelihoods; promoting integration on the continent; strengthening people-to-people diplomacy; and advancing peace and security. Of these, security stands out as the area with the most potential for promoting US-China-Africa trilateral cooperation.

China's involvement in African security issues has long been limited to UN multinational peacekeeping missions. However, China's increasing presence in Africa means that African security challenges directly involve China. For example, the war in Libya in 2011 forced the withdrawal of 35,000 Chinese personnel from that country, and the conflicts between various factions in the Sudan conflict led to the killing or kidnapping of Chinese workers. So Africa's security is related not only to local development, but also to the fate of Africa-based Chinese enterprises and their employees. Helping African countries create a peaceful and secure environment will benefit the continent's development. It will also serve the interests of China and be beneficial to peace and stability across the world.

Compared with China's limited experience, the US has long been directly involved in African security issues. And since the establishment of the US Africa Command in 2007, it has accelerated its pace of gathering information, setting up small-scale military bases and directly participating in attacking extremist forces and combating terrorism in Africa.

China certainly won't follow the US' lead. But with the consent of African countries, and also in order to meet the demand from African countries, China will increase the financial support it provides for African Union peacekeeping activities, and it will create more training opportunities for African peacekeepers. China can also serve as a mediator in some regional conflicts.

To promote cooperation on African security issues, China and the US could first exchange intelligence and experience in conventional and unconventional security. They could also collaborate to help African countries build up a strong African peacekeeping force.

The author is professor and director of the African Studies Section of the Institute of West Asian & African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The article was originally published on

(China Daily 08/16/2012 page8)

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