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U.S., Chinese Roles in Africa Offer Danger, Potential

FullTextImage/img/@altParticipating in the first panel session of “The Eagle and the Dragon in Africa” are (from left) Ambassador Sheila Siwela, Dr. Narcisse Tiky, Dr. Soji Adelaja, and Dr. Donald Sparks. – Photo courtesy of the Center for Leadership and Ethics.

LEXINGTON, Va., Nov. 3, 2011 – The U.S. and China are like two elephants in the grass when it comes to development in Africa. That was the colorful metaphor employed throughout the first panel discussion of VMI’s “The Eagle and the Dragon in Africa” conference on Nov. 3. The session put questions on the table for the conference participants to consider.

“There is a saying that when two elephants fight, the grass suffers,” said Sheila Siwela, ambassador of the Republic of Zambia to the United States. “When two elephants don’t fight, the grass grows.”

Narcisse Tiky, assistant professor in residence at the University of Connecticut-Storrs and research associate at the John Goodwin Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University, expanded on the metaphor.

“I would like to say that when two elephants fight, all the sheep go, to stay away,” said Tiky. “They stay away and wait for the fight to be over, so that the sheep will actually come and pick up the pieces. Is that what’s happening in Africa?”

Joining Siwela and Tiky in the discussion was Soji Adelaja, professor of land policy and director of the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University. The discussion was chaired by Donald Sparks, professor of international economics in the School Of Business Administration at the Citadel.

Siwela highlighted the different roles that China and the United States have traditionally played in Africa, with the United States investing in social and educational programs and China investing in infrastructure.

Adelaja acknowledged the range of benefits that have been brought to Africa, but focused his comments on the motivations that China has for investment in Africa.

He explained the extreme ends of those motivations: on one end is an altruistic interest in the development of Africa and on the other is a neo-colonial interest in exploiting Africa’s resources.

China’s motivations lie somewhere between these extremes, and those motivations are driven by the increasing demands of the Chinese people.

“We’re talking about massive growth in the consumption of food in China, and that raises the question, where is that food going to come from,” said Adelaja. Add to that China’s appetite for natural resources, and motivations for Chinese involvement in Africa are strong.

Adelaja supported his statements by showing consumption trends in China as well as pointing out the resources Africa has to offer.

“When we ask the question ‘Is China good for Africa?’ or ‘Is the United States good for Africa?’ I would like to suggest that our partners in Africa spend a little bit more time looking beyond what is currently happening and try to understand motivations, connecting the dots.”

Tiky raised the question of who benefits from U.S. and Chinese involvement in Africa.

“The question would be, is this competition good for the Africans, for the African people?” said Tiky. “We know that the governments are benefiting, but are the African people benefiting?”

Sparks took the elephant metaphor a step further at the end of the discussion, pointing to the danger to Africa of a close relationship between China and the U.S. in African affairs.

“One last point about the elephant parable,” said Sparks. “When two elephants make love, the grass suffers.”

–John Robertson