Africa must make most of China-US rivalry

Competition between China and the US to be Africa’s main trading and development partner presents the continent with better strategic choices, says Standard Bank in a report released this week.

But the report cautions African governments against using “out-dated models that place ideology ahead of commerce” when engaging the world’s two economic giants, and suggests Africa strive for balance rather than choosing between the two.

Titled China and the US in Africa: Measuring Washington’s response to Beijing’s Commercial Advance, the paper was written by research analysts Simon Freemantle and Jeremy Stevens.

The authors note that the tussle between the world’s two largest economies has elevated Africa to a new position of influence and as a much-sought-after market, and offer some perspectives on how the continent can use this status to best unlock its potential.

They argue that while China’s rise might have overtaken the US in Africa, there are merits in engaging with both countries, and that Africa should rather capitalise on the frictions between the two countries. “Africa must ensure reciprocity,” say Freemantle and Stevens. “The relative (and varied) merits of engaging with both must be measured and capitalised on.”

China’s rise as new global pole of influence should be seen as supplementing rather than replacing the role of the continent’s traditional trading partners, such as the US.

“African states must engineer a new foreign policy based on this understanding, balancing rather than selecting between the US and China,” they write.

African countries still stand to benefit from strengthening their longstanding relationship with the US, still the world’s most powerful economy. The US is still a major importer of African goods and private development assistance to African states.

The researchers note that while China’s rise has been sufficiently swift to eclipse the US in Africa, “African states must remain acutely aware of the separate benefits to be gained from seeking deeper alliances with the world’s most powerful economy”.

“It is an oddity of economic commentary that the importance and size of the US economy is downplayed. The US economy is nearly three times the size of China’s. . . . It should be no surprise that the world’s largest consumer is also Africa’s largest export destination,” says the report.

Freemantle and Stevens point out that the US is also a substantially more profound importer of African goods. In addition, the US state and private developmental assistance to African states on occasion provides crucial support for socio-economic prosperity.

“For Africa, there are clear advantages in maintaining intimate ties with the US. Small successes in AGOA (the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act) show that African nations can secure access to US consumers. Meanwhile, the US remains the continent‘s most profound export partner, and a vital, and rising, source of investment to fuel the continued unlocking of the African consumer vista.”