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The limits of US-China cooperation in Africa

AP Photo/Wang Zhao, Pool
China and South Africa are cooperating on nuclear energy.
  • Sun Yun
By Sun Yun

Nonresident Fellow, Brookings Insitution

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

For the past few years, calls for the US and China to cooperate on security and development issues in Africa have been increasingly popular. American and Chinese think tanks have been keen on identifying common ground and issue areas in Africa in which the two powers can work together. In fact, in a 2014 study by the China Institute of International Studies, Chinese scholars identified “an urgent need” for China and the US to coordinate on African affairs. Brookings even hosted a US, Africa, and China trilateral dialogue in 2013 to explore potential opportunities for collaboration. The Council on Foreign Relations and Center for Strategic and International Studies have also devoted much attention to the issue. These calls have not been futile: The most recent  US-China Africa Consultation hosted in Beijing in late 2014 discussed cooperation around the Ebola crisis and other common threats on the continent.

However, despite the rhetoric and enthusiasm, people might be disappointed at the reality, which is that exemplary cases of successful cooperation between Washington and Beijing on the continent remain scarce. The few examples of collaboration are on issues of the “lowest common denominator” (most basic and least controversial), such as the flaring crisis in Sudan/South Sudan and severe non-traditional threats such as the Ebola outbreak. Upon examining the American and Chinese perspectives on cooperation in Africa, more realistic expectations as to what the two powers can and will jointly do for a better Africa might be warranted.

The logic of US-China cooperation in Africa is a sound one. Both Beijing and Washington have important political and economic interests in promoting peace and development of Africa. The two countries’ vested interests in Africa, particularly in commercial investment, make peace and stability imperative. In addition, as two responsible powers, the countries carry a shared moral obligation to Africa. In cases such as South Sudan, both the US and China stand much to lose if the crisis continues to fester. Furthermore, a stable and prosperous Africa will provide both the US and China more investment and trade opportunities, which can enhance the momentum for their cooperation.

Nevertheless, while scholars and media reports on both sides have produced numerous papers and analysis on what the US and China “could” or “should” do to cooperate in Africa (as listed above), concrete cooperation that the two countries are in fact  pursuing or planning to pursue is yet to develop quickly.

The fundamental cause of inadequate US-China cooperation in Africa is an underlying sense of zero-sum competition between the two powers on the continent. Essentially, the US 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.  On the US side, a 2014 RAND study accurately captures the current US perspective and reflects the US’s concern around China’s expanding influence in Africa and about the US losing in the Africa game. After listing details of China’s expanding engagements in the continent and how they undermine US influence, the report recommends that the US counter Chinese efforts such as the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) by cultivating relations with a wider range of African countries. Following the same line of thought, President Obama took a swipe at China during the 2014 US-Africa Leaders Summit by differentiating the US approach from those that “look to Africa simply for its natural resources … and simply want to extract minerals from the ground …” Although the president did not mention China by name, the comments were clearly aimed at Beijing.

Such a competitive theme is also popular in China. As summarized by a 2013 report by the China Academy of Social Sciences, “the strengthening of the West’s influence in Africa means that China will face more difficulties in achieving its strategic interests in Africa … The West’s current campaign to deepen their influence presents more strategic competition to China … China should focus more on a competitive strategy in Africa.” Chinese analysts are keen to study how the US’s Africa strategies might affect or undermine Chinese political and commercial interests on the ground. Some have suspected that the American interventions in Mali, Sudan, South Sudan, and Libya were indeed targeted at undercutting Chinese economic interests in those countries. To counter American criticism of China’s resource-centric economic engagement, China has also grown increasingly adept at attributing such disapproval to Americans’ “sore loser” mentality.

Other than the strong sense of competition, another key factor that hinders US-China cooperation in Africa is the different approaches and standards the two countries have adopted on issues such as foreign aid and development assistance. While China does not allow political issues such as democratic or authoritarian systems to interfere with its pragmatic ties with African countries, the US has strong value-oriented policies that prevent Washington from engaging regimes with poor human rights records. On the technical level, China views development and foreign aid as practical policy instruments to promote political friendship and economic cooperation, while the US attaches clearly stated goals, stringent conditions, and strict criteria to its development programs. In reality, these vast differences significantly limit the potential for US-China cooperation.

As noted above, within this broader context, the most notable cooperation between the US and China seems to occur only on issues of the “lowest common denominator.” South Sudan is a good example. China has major oil investments at stake in the security crisis in South Sudan, while the US has a vested interest in the success of a country that became independent from a referendum that Washington supported.  Out of their shared interests, both the US and China have participated in the peace process and have been jointly pushing for the end of the conflict. As a demonstration of such mutual commitment, Washington and Beijing listed Sudan/South Sudan as a key issue to work on together. Specific agendas include calling for parties in the South Sudan conflict to carry out the May 9 agreements, jointly supporting the U.N. Mission in South Sudan and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) mediation efforts, as well as coordinating various consultations to support peace.

However, even in such a dire situation, US-China cooperation is affected by the countries’ dissimilar views of Sudan and of the need for sanctions. On the one hand, China argues that including Khartoum in the negotiation process is imperative given the key role Sudan plays in the conflict. However, such a proposal, which would necessitate negotiations with the Sudanese dictator President Omar al-Bashir, could hardly be considered an option in American domestic politics. On the other hand, the US recently proposed a draft resolution to impose sanctions on South Sudan in order to push for a ceasefire. However, China has serious doubts about how the sanctions might affect China’s existing interests, such as the oil arrangements. Thus, these positions reveal divergent concerns, goals, interests, and desired outcomes on both sides.

The other “lowest common denominator” area where people can find more signs of US-China cooperation is health. In Liberia, the two countries have successfully worked to establish centers for disease control cooperation as well as launched the US-China Collaborative Program on Emerging and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases. During the recent Ebola crisis, the two countries have cooperated on providing assistance, coordinating logistics, and building an Ebola treatment center. Inspiring as these cases are, it seems such cooperation only occurs on issues that present the most serious, unequivocal threats to the two countries’ interests and when the importance of such interests significantly outweighs the competition side of the story.

Beyond these basic areas, people looking for US-China cooperation in Africa in issues such as development or infrastructure will be disappointed. The Inga 3 dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, arguably a case of mutual interest for the United States and China, is an example. Last year, Africa observers were excited by the report stating that the US was considering cooperation with China to fund the project, which would help to realize President Obama’s ambitious Power Africa goals. China even extended an invitation to the US for the joint development. However, such hope was soon dimmed when Power Africa Coordinator Andrew Hescowitz announced at the Power Africa Summit earlier this year that the US-backed Power Africa initiative will not “officially” endorse the dam project because the US does not want the Power Africa brand to be “tarnished.” Cooperation with China on the project is therefore ruled out.

If these facts are indeed true, Africa watchers should perhaps adjust their high expectations for broad, extensive US-China cooperation in Africa. Instead, the US and China should focus their efforts on the basic and least controversial security crisis and non-traditional health challenges such as pandemics. Cooperation on such issues as politics, trade, development, and aid is unlikely to occur as long as the competitive perceptions of each other remain unchanged in Beijing and Washington. Rather than painting a grand vision of an all-round US-China cooperation in Africa, all three sides will benefit much more by focusing on the basic issues they can realistically work on together.

This piece was originally published on the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative blog, Africa in Focus, and can be found here.

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