African business, politics and lifestyle
China shunts U.S. into second place in Scramble for Africa
A presidential visit followed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s African tour cannot conceal a stark reality: China has overtaken the United States as Africa’s top trading partner.
That is one of the main problems facing Clinton on a seven-nation jaunt meant variously to spread Washington’s good governance message and shore up relationships with its key oil suppliers on the continent.
U.S. officials are keen to trumpet a 28 percent jump in 2008 in trade with sub-Saharan Africa to $104 billion, even if the increase is attributable mainly to the high price of oil, which accounts for more than 80 percent of U.S. imports from Africa.
However, there is another statistic that says more about the direction of development on the poorest continent: this decade’s tenfold increase in trade with China to $107 billion last year, narrowly eclipsing the United States.
The financial and then economic crisis that has pushed U.S. and European economies into recession and forced their companies to crimp overseas expansion is only likely to accelerate the trend despite the regional goodwill towards U.S. President Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan.
Nor is China the only emerging economy seeking a slice of a continent estimated to hold a third of the world’s mineral resources, and nearly a billion people slowly finding they want — and can afford — things like life insurance and iPhones.
The $23 billion bid by mobile phone firm Bharti Airtel to tie up with South Africa’s MTN Group, Africa’s biggest operator by subscribers, is the latest and biggest example of an Indian company on the prowl in the region.
Brazil is also making its presence felt, with offers of technology and know-how to boost food and biofuels production in Africa, where only a fraction of potential arable land is under cultivation.
In June, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev flew in to Egypt, Namibia, Angola and Nigeria — the last two being Africa’s biggest oil producers — to underscore Moscow’s intentions not to be left out in the cold.
For sure, the increased competition does not mean the world’s biggest economy is throwing in the African towel, especially given that Angola, for instance, accounts for 7 percent of its oil imports.
But maybe it might make visiting Washington bigwigs bite their tongues before embarking on yet another morality lecture the moment they set foot on African soil.