Clearer view of Africa called for

Updated: 2014-11-28 05:48

By Zhang Yuchen in Beijing(China Daily USA)

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China and the US must step up their cultural awareness of Africa and see the continent as what it is - a collection of diverse nations, not a single country - to foster and bolster cooperation, say experts.

Between China and the US, there are cooperation opportunities throughout Africa, but first the world's two largest economies must deepen their understanding of the world's second largest continent, in both geographic size and population, and the individual countries it contains.

Where the US tends to view and treat Africa as a single country, China lacks the necessary understanding of cultures and values of African countries by showing its checkbook first, said Jacob Olupona, professor of African Religious Traditions and chair of the Committee on African Studies at the Harvard Divinity School.

"Shallow appreciation and knowledge of the African history and current political struggles is the challenge for Chinese companies doing business in Africa," Olupona said.

The Ebola crisis thrust Africa rudely back into the spotlight and is one more example of skewed views of the continent, according to the observers.

"It would be a mistake to think the Ebola crisis defines the continent," said Witney Schneidman, AGI nonresident fellow and senior advisor for Africa at Covington and Burling, LLP. "Both the US and China have to renew their views on the continent."

Africa has more than 1 billion people spread across more than 50 countries. Three of the countries affected by Ebola - Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea - have a combined population of approximately 20 million people.

Olupona and Schneidman agreed that the key to future relations with Africa and deeper cooperation between China and the US lies in more education and increased cultural understanding.

As a newcomer to the continent, China's presence in Africa has been seen as a threat to US interests. But China still has much to learn about the continent and individual countries, according to the observers.

"I think we need to learn to cooperate better through trilateral diplomacy. The US and China can sit down with the African governments to identify ways in which various programs can be reinforced, each one of them," Schneidman said.

In 2012, China's trade with Africa reached $198.5 billion, surpassing US-African trade of $99.8 billion the same year, Olupona said during a lecture on Nov 24, on China's investment in Africa.

In August, US President Barack Obama hosted the first summit of African leaders. During the summit, the US and African countries signed a trade agreement worth $33 billion.

"If we get more contacts of leaders from countries, that would enable America to get to know them, and to understand how Uganda is different from Angola, how Angola is different from Senegal, and Senegal is different from Nigeria (each country is different from another)," Schneidman said. "The Americans are waking up to realize there is a big market on the continent and they need to be a part of it. They are late to the market and they see China is moving forward very quickly. They don't want to be left out."

Despite supplying much-needed infrastructure projects and 22 percent of investment of over $1.7 billion in the manufacturing sector, however, China remains a smaller player in Africa than the United States. US foreign direct investment in Africa totals nearly two to three times more than Chinese stock investment.

"In the US most of Americans have a view that Africa is becoming a continent of great opportunities and it's demonstrated by the fact that Africa has six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world, with South Africa and sub-Sahara area having the middle class of 300 million people, and the governance improved," said Schneidman, the former US deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

For China and US to deepen their cooperation, there are areas for potential cooperation, including climate change, agriculture and energy. In the agricultural area, the US can work with small farmers to improve the capability to produce crops and China can help build the road to get the crops from the field to the market, according to Schneidman.

He also mentioned that there can be a stronger area: in terms of building infrastructure projects, China has a lot of resources that they can bring to the table and US companies can supply different products to generate energy.

There is expectation that China will get involved in the Africa Power initiative to help extend reliable sources of electricity to more than two-thirds of the African population, said Schneidman. Power Africa is a new five-year American presidential initiative launched by President Obama in Tanzania during his tour of the continent in July 2013.

"In many aspects China and the US can cooperate in Africa," Schneidman said. "In the past, China and the US cooperated as to the impact of the pirates along the Somali coast. It is encouraging to see China participate in the UN peace operation in South Sudan. We have to think of more creative ways for the future cooperation between the two countries."