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Shinn at Left

Shinn at Left

Today, I heard Ambassador (Burkina Faso & Ethiopia) David Shinn speak on ‘China’s Engagement with Africa.’  The event was held at the African-American Civil War Museum in the U Street Corridor under the sponsorship of the DC chapter of the US – China Peoples Friendship Association.  I’ve been to a few local events on China – Africa Relations (such this one on opinions and this one on Chinese engagement in South Africa) and I’ve interviewed the local Sino – African doyen (who was in attendance today with a very scruffy beard), but my knowledge of China’s Africa engagement is not very deep.

Thanks to Amb. Shinn’s comments PowerPoint Presentation today, I’ve developed a much stronger understanding of China’s presence in Africa.  The Ambassador began by noting that China and the US share several strategic interests in Africa:

  • As a source of raw materials
  • As a consumer of exports
  • As a constituency of political support

Shinn noted that in Africa, China seeks to reduce political support for Taiwan (he made a humorous display of pictures of the heads of state at the Taiwan – Africa summit vs. the China – Africa summit) while the US also seeks military access and cooperation to reduce terrorism, narco-trafficking and other related activity.  Shinn noted that while Africa accounted for approximately 25% of all conventional arms sales to Africa in the 2006 – 2010 period and contributed personnel to all UN peacekeeping operations on the continent, the Chinese have been very careful to avoid militarizing their presence in Africa.

The most interesting figure of the night may have been in regards to diplomatic representation.  I was somewhat surprised to hear that China has embassies in every African country it has relations with (except Somalia).  However, I was shocked to hear that with the exception of the Comoros, every African nation that has relations with China maintains a Mission in Beijing.

I knew that China recently surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner, but I did not realize this was back in 2009 and I did not know that by 2013 China – Africa trade was twice the size of US – Africa trade.  However, China’s trade with Africa is not particularly diverse, with 2/3 of trade (2012) with South Africa, Angola, Nigeria, Egypt, and Libya.  Not suprisingly, 83% of Africa’s exports to China are raw materials.

Economics and power relations formed the bulk of Shinn’s remarks and he took pains to highlight that journalists from distinguished outlets (such as the NY Times and Washington Post) often conflate Chinese aid, trade, and private investment.  However, he addressed China’s soft power maneuvers and in Q&A, the Chinese diaspora presence in Africa as well – there are 350,000 individuals of Chinese descent in South Africa.  China has established 40 Confucius Institutes on the campuses of African universities and Xinhua has the largest African presence of any news agency, with 20 African bureaus.  Chinese state radio and TV also has a large presence in Kenya.

It certainly seems that the US is trying to gain ground it has lost to China in Africa – Power Africa, YALI, and Obama’s US – Africa summit this August being a major component of that effort.  The Study of China – Africa relations in the US seems to be gaining ground (this was the Ambassador’s second public event this week), which in many of its expressions is also a reflection of that determination.

Shinn’s final analysis is that China’s presence in Africa is ‘more positive than it is negative.’  I’m not educated enough to debate the intrinsic merits of that debate, but I do think it is clear that China is assiduously applying its new strength to get what it wants from Africa while African nations are in a weak position to effectively counter those machinations.