Cindy Bither
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U.S., China, Africa an ‘Expanding Circle’

FullTextImage/img/@altAmbassador Johnnie Carson gives a keynote address. -- Photo courtesy of the Center for Leadership and Ethics.

LEXINGTON, Va., Nov. 4, 2011 – Ambassador Johnnie Carson said he doesn’t believe media portrayals of China as some kind of Cold War rival to the United States in Africa.

“That analysis is wrong, misleading, and overly simplistic,” said Carson in his keynote remarks Nov. 4 at a luncheon during VMI’s “The Eagle and the Dragon in Africa” conference. “It’s a mistake to say we are engaged in a new competition for mineral and petroleum resources.”

Carson, who is assistant secretary of state for African affairs with the U.S. Department of State, acknowledged that the United States should follow China’s growing role in Africa very carefully for a number of reasons, but cautioned against an “alarmist or apprehensive” response, especially since China’s influence and actions in Africa vary from sector to sector and country to country. Carson also pointed out that China has developed relations in Africa in the diplomatic and political realm, but hasn’t tried to establish a permanent military presence or undermine African governments.

A more reasoned view of China would be one that recognizes the country’s astronomical population and economic growth, and by extension, its logical need to procure energy resources and other commodities. Carson alluded to statistics from 1997 that put a $5 billion price tag on Chinese-African trade. By 2008 that number was $107 billion, while in 2010 it had reached $115 billion, placing China just ahead of the United States as Africa’s biggest single trade partner, Carson said.

Since Africa is the “last global economic frontier,” it’s only natural for countries like China, among many others, to look to Africa for economic and political opportunities, similar to the way the United States considers growth in Africa a core foreign policy objective.

What’s more, Carson noted, the United States remains the dominant player in the development and production of oil in Africa, where China remains a relative newcomer. And not a single African country ranks as one of China’s top 10 suppliers or import destinations.

Oftentimes, China’s actions in Africa are not in conflict with those of the United States, said Carson, noting that Chinese activities in Africa often center on infrastructure improvements in oil-rich countries, while the United States favors education and human rights reforms.

That’s not to say the United States shouldn’t anticipate challenges in future dealings with China in Africa, especially when strong U.S. support for civil liberties and democratic reforms may lead to friction with China, which favors a “non-interventionist” approach to foreign governments. China places its own economic and domestic interests over human rights commitments by African governments.

Ultimately, the United States should “get over its fears and get involved” in Africa, Carson said. “In Washington we will encourage more American companies to look at Africa as a new market, and we will tell our African counterparts to hold China to the same high standards they hold American companies,” said Carson, who pointed out that American companies often strive to integrate local African workforces, while Chinese companies typically employ Chinese workers.

“I believe Chinese goals to strengthen African economic growth are in the best interests of Africa, China, and the U.S.,” Carson said. “It’s an expanding circle, not a zero sum game.”

–George Abry