CREDIT: <a href="">Guled Hussein</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: Guled Hussein (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: Building a Foundation of Trust

Apr 24, 2008

Last month, Li Changchun, a member of the Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau, became the latest high-level Chinese official to tour Africa. He and a group of senior Chinese leaders made a stop to inspect Chinese workers building Algeria's East-West Highway. The $11 billion thoroughfare will stretch over 1,200 kilometers, traversing Algeria from Morocco to Tunisia. According to CCTV, the highway is the largest and most technically challenging overseas project for Chinese contractors since the historic Chinese-built railroad linking Tanzania and Zambia.

This visit and countless others reflect and facilitate Beijing's ever-expanding role in Africa—a role viewed by many as a prelude to conflict with the West over natural resources. Perhaps, but China's Africa presence also creates opportunities for U.S.–China cooperation on energy, security, corruption, and health—topics that require increasingly wide-ranging and regular dialogue, which has already begun at the assistant secretary level.


In 2006, Africa supplied about 33 percent of China's oil imports and about 22 percent of U.S. imports. Both countries expect these percentages to rise. China also purchases minerals, timber, and other raw materials from Africa, and the continent is a growing market for Chinese exports.

As energy consumers, the United States and China would both benefit from increased supply. Although some African oil-exporting nations benefit from higher petroleum prices, importing states also want lower prices at the pump, and all Africans would benefit from economies of scale, increased supply, and improved efficiency. One example of trilateral cooperation is Sonangol, the China-Angola offshore oil joint venture with BP.


Peacekeeping, counterterrorism, and narcotics interdiction are key areas in which the United States and China could cooperate in Africa. In 2001, Beijing began contributing significant numbers of peacekeepers to UN operations in Africa. Today, almost 1,500 Chinese blue helmets are in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, and Sudan. Additional efforts to mitigate conflict in Africa must include the end to all arms shipments to Zimbabwe and the surrounding region.

Two challenges exist in Sudan—a solution to the crisis in Darfur and implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between Northern and Southern forces. As an original CPA proponent, the United States is vested in its implementation. China, which obtains about 6 percent of its oil imports from Sudan, also wants continued peace. South Africa has also shown a strong desire to work on behalf of the CPA. All three parties should work together to advance the CPA.

While a solution in Darfur offers greater challenges, cooperation between the United States and China did help convince Sudan to accept a hybrid African Union–UN peacekeeping force. Yet it remains unclear whether this effort represents a change in Beijing's policy of diplomatic protection for Khartoum.

U.S.–China cooperation in the security sphere could help maintain stability in Africa. American and Chinese oil companies have been the targets of terrorist acts. In the Niger Delta, militants have kidnapped Western and Chinese nationals they accuse of "investing in stolen crude." In response, Nigeria purchased Chinese-made naval patrol boats and arms to protect oil operations in the Delta, but only after Western nations were slow to respond to Abuja's requests. Somalia is another country where Washington and Beijing could increase security cooperation and intelligence sharing.


Corruption in Africa keeps millions in squalor and hundreds in splendor. For decades, crooked African officials have stashed millions in European and North American accounts. Money laundering and capital flight are related problems in some African countries, South Africa in particular. Africans would be well served if Washington and Beijing stood together and issued a strong statement against corruption.

Critics argue that China has little incentive to reduce corruption in Africa since Beijing's state-run firms often benefit from the access cooked dealings provide. But Beijing also knows that reducing African corruption lowers the barriers to entry, the cost of doing business, and the prospects for resentment among disenfranchised Africans.


Africans constitute about ten percent of the global population, but comprise 60 percent of the world's population with HIV/AIDS, 90 percent of malaria deaths, and more than half of deaths due to infectious and parasitic diseases. To combat malaria, the U.S.-based PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative and the Chinese company Shanghai Wanxing Bio-Pharmaceuticals are jointly developing a vaccine.

Cooperative efforts like this one combine both countries' medical technology, resources, and access to drugs and, if expanded, could make a real difference in Africans' health. Although the United States has devoted more resources than China to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, China vowed to increase funds to counter this scourge at the Beijing summit with African leaders in November 2006.

Grassroots medical care is important in Africa. Since 1963, China has sent more than 15,000 medical personnel to 47 African countries, treating tens of millions of patients. U.S. capital from government aid programs or private organizations like the Gates Foundation could expand this effort and boost the quality of care provided.

If progress is possible on issues of agreement, then the goodwill generated could form a foundation of trust for expanded consultations on controversial topics like China's lack of concern for Africa's environment, its blind eye to human rights abuses, its indifference toward developing civil society, and its disappointing arms sales policies.

David H. Shinn served as U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. He is now an adjunct professor at George Washington University. Joshua Eisenman is fellow in Asia studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C. They are cohosting a conference of experts and policymakers on "Current Developments and Trends in China's Relations with African Countries" next week on Capitol Hill.

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