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Written by Kelsey Aulakh

On Nov. 21, Chinese Ambassador to Kenya, Liu Guangyuan, urged for greater Africa and Chinese media cooperation as he deemed the misrepresentation by the Western media of Africa-China relations to be, “unacceptable.” He sees a biased Western media that has a tendency to focus on negative subjects such as war, poverty, and diseases in African countries rather than on highlighting the continent’s positive transformations.

“There’s still a narrative in our minds … that Africa is backward and Africans have got to become like us – ‘we have got to change them.’ I think that Africans feel that and the young African generation that’s coming through are now very resentful of that,” explains David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.

This ‘backward’ narrative has worked to the benefit of Chinese leaders, who have expressed no interest in changing African countries.

Changing U.S. narrative, rising Chinese influence

In recent years, while the U.S. has been primarily concerned with security issues and relationships in the Middle East, China has established strengthening its sub-Saharan African ties, particularly through multilateral institutions like the African Union (AU), as its priority. The new AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia has been called, “China’s gift to Africa,” as the Chinese funded the $200 million dollar project.

The Chinese have even supported the AU in key sectors such as peace and security by conducting training courses at the Peace & Security Department in China, as well as contributing to efforts on the ground, particularly with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the United Nations – AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

Whether or not this is due to a mounting feeling of U.S. wariness with regard to Chinese influence, the United States has recently acted to alter its previous narrative and perception of the continent.

In what some saw as an attempt by the U.S. to showcase its influence in an area increasingly dominated by Chinese investments, President Barack Obama visited Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania in July of this year. Focusing less on human rights and democracy concerns than previous U.S. delegations, he announced in Tanzania that the United States aspires to maintain a relationship based on trade and partnership rather than just charitable aid.

obama arrives tanzania

Obama dances as he arrives in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania on July 1st, 2013 [Photo credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images]

Nature of China’s influence

The Chinese ambassador is right to note that China’s involvement in Africa has been instrumental in many positive ways. Although some have looked at China’s financial investments ($75 billion in aid and development projects in the past decade) and alluded to other motives behind its African involvement, such as Beijing’s quest for natural resources, recent data on Chinese finance on the continent suggest otherwise.

The Chinese government has put hundreds of millions of dollars into other sectors, such as health and education. In Liberia, for instance, China has financed a malaria prevention center. In Mozambique, a Chinese project funded a National School for Visual Arts.

Benefits from trade are obviously at the forefront of Chinese activities. The health and education initiatives are most likely a means to an end, whereby the Chinese seek to increase both domestic and international support for their involvement on the continent.

Intentions aside, Africans generally look kindly on Beijing. Polls are infrequently conducted, but a 2007 Pew Center Research survey found that in the Ivory Coast, Mali, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, between 67% and 92% of respondents held a favorable view of Beijing.

chinese doctor

A doctor from the Chinese medical assistance team to Tanzania examines a patient with heart disease [Photo credit: Embassy of China]

What’s next for the U.S.

With this new focus on “partnership,” it is clear that the U.S. may have decided to remain closely involved in African economic affairs. However, it may be too little, too late. Although western countries are still important in the energy sector, as shown by President Obama’s recent Power Africa initiative – a commitment to expand energy access throughout the continent –  so far, China has managed to secure a greater share of investments in the mineral, infrastructure, and telecommunications sectors.

If the U.S. sincerely wants to remain influential, it should work harder and faster in order to expand economic and political ties with a larger portion of the continent, rather than concentrating on only a few African states.

China’s influence is quickly growing: last month, the Chinese announced plans to build a strong naval force to protect the Indian Ocean’s shipping lanes that usually carry resources from the Persian Gulf and Africa. This may pose a direct challenge to the U.S., as the Indian Ocean has historically been dominated by the U.S. Navy and its aircraft carriers.

Four of the top-ten fastest growing economies in 2013 in terms of GDP percentage, are in Africa. It is safe to assume that their growth will most likely be sustainable thanks to their newly-found resource wealth. The U.S. must double its efforts if it hopes to harness their potential and maintain clout. China is definitely not taking any time off the job.

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