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United States and China Cooperating and Competing

FullTextImage/img/@altCol. Jim Hentz, VMI professor of international studies, was chair of panel six, on advancing the diplomatic agenda. -- Photo courtesy of the Center for Leadership and Ethics.

LEXINGTON, Va., Nov. 4, 2011 – A discussion on the ways that the United States and China are cooperating and competing in Africa took place on Nov. 4, during the sixth panel discussion of “The Eagle and The Dragon in Africa” conference.

On the panel were J. Peter Pham, director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, and David Shinn, adjunct professor at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. It was chaired by Col. Jim Hentz, professor of international studies at Virginia Military Institute.

Shinn noted the range of common goals that the United States and China have in Africa. Both nations encourage economic development, promote stability in government, and seek to defeat terrorist organizations.

“If the United States’ and China’s interests in China overlap, then there can be collaboration,” said Shinn.

Shinn went on to enumerate areas in which there is room for collaboration between the United States and China, including United Nations peacekeeping missions, promoting health initiatives, and supporting agricultural development.

Despite the opportunities and shared interests, Shinn noted that influence in Africa is shifting in China’s favor.

“The West, due in large part to budgetary constraints, is either holding steady or even scaling back in Africa, while China and some other countries continue to press forward on all fronts,” said Shinn. “Chinese influence grows, while Western influence is static and, in some cases, even in decline.”’

Recognizing the potential benefits to African nations of functioning relationships with the United States and with China, Pham noted that African nations should steer the development of those relationships.

“I would emphasize … the need for African agency,” said Pham. “It’s not about just what America is doing for Africa or what China is doing. We have to engage Africans as actors, African governments, and civil society sectors within those [nations] and bring them into this dialogue.”

Pham warned of looking at China or the United States as monoliths, pointing out that the influence of both the China and the United States in Africa is a result of the sum of actions taken by government entities, businesses, and individuals.

Hentz explained the difficulties that African nations have in leveraging their interests against the interests of the governments of China and the United States.

“In any bilateral relationship, the giant is going to win,” said Hentz, “It’s almost impossible for an individual state in Africa to out-negotiate the United States, China, or the EU.”

While African countries have more leverage when dealing with businesses, there are limits to the benefits businesses can provide. Pham used the example of how U.S. oil extraction in Nigeria can’t bring a microchip factory to Nigeria.

“Who is it exactly that wants to extract the oil from Nigeria? From the U.S. side it’s Exxon-Mobil and Chevron,” said Pham. “Exxon-Mobil and Chevron are, to the best of my knowledge, not in the microchip business. So, asking Exxon-Mobil for a microchip factory doesn’t quite work.”

The only undergraduate to present during the conference was Joseph Riley, a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia. Deborah Brautigam, author of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, spoke alongside Riley in the seventh and final panel, which was chaired by Yoon Jung Park, senior research associate at Rhodes University.

–John Robertson IV