Don't let Africa fall to China

Posted: August 06, 2012

Recent travelers to Africa might be puzzled by the number of Chinese workers they see building infrastructure while most of the indigenous population remains unemployed.

This recurring scene demonstrates that China is successfully doing a lot of business in Africa. Some might even say China appears to have a firm foothold in the continent. So what should the United States do about it?

Neither President George W. Bush's administration, nor President Obama's, seems to have paid much attention to Africa, other than countries like Somalia and Eritrea, which have become havens for terrorists since 9/11.

But now, after Osama bin Laden has been killed, it is reasonable to expect the United States to broaden the perspective of its foreign policy, which is what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may be attempting to do with her 11-day visit to Africa.

Obviously, Clinton understands it is in America's vital interest to limit China's business and political power in Africa. She knows the United States should be increasing its own influence on the continent. The United States has two reasons to do this:

First, China has for decades been nailing down access to important resources in Africa, including oil, iron ore, and the metallic ore coltan, which is used in making mobile phones. America does not want to be left out.

Second, U.S. foreign policy makers should be alarmed that China might be regarded by Africa's leaders and its people as a role model; that Africans believe China is demonstrating that it is possible to boost economic growth without embracing democracy.

To establish democracy is never easy. Look at what is happening in Iraq. And it is especially difficult initially, when it might seem more efficient to have a strongman give orders to everyone else.

Recognizing that reality, Clinton has applauded African leaders who seem genuinely committed to democracy. However, the United States isn't severing its relations with countries that haven't exactly erased all traces of despotism from their governments but are allies in the effort to destroy al-Qaeda.

Of course, in the long run, there is no better recipe to fight terrorism than to establish stable, or even better, flourishing, democracies that rely on a large, strong, well-educated middle class. Unfortunately, though — except for South Africa — that isn't happening in most of the continent.

A different strategy is needed. The United States and Europe have spent tons of money on projects in Africa that did not turn out to be sustainable. And, like China, they have done little to encourage the growth of the local companies that are typically the backbone of any successful economy. Africa needs entrepreneurs, but they won't just sprout from the earth.

The Chinese have been cozying up to African leaders to do business by promising, "We won't get on your nerves talking about human rights." That's not the American way.

People in other lands can be convinced that freedom of speech and equal rights will help them gain economic success. But you can't make that case very well if you're not around to help. Clinton's visit promises more focus on Africa. The promise must become reality.

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