Blog: US Senate Committee hearing on China in Africa

Last week the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on the implications of China’s role in Africa on US policy. Answering the senators questions were Dr. David ShinnDr. Deborah Brautigam (both of whom write regular blogs on China in Africa) and Stephen Hayes, president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa. The session seemed a legitimate attempt to gain a better understanding of how and why China has strengthened its position in Africa, relative to the US, and what that means for US policy in Africa.

A big part of the discussion was the question of whether the US government should use its funds to pursue bilateral aid, or support a private sector led approach. China’s role was described in terms of its avid support for its businesses, support that was regarded jealously by Stephen Hayes. Contributors remarked on the importance of bringing jobs to Africa in order that they can one day pay for their own anti-retrovirals and food. The hearing created the bizarre scenario in which the inventor of modern capitalism was being taught lessons about the importance of supporting the private sector, by a communist state.

While the senators in attendance were interested in the role China’s ‘business led development’ has played, a number of questions were asked as to whether China’s ‘mercantilist’ policies were doing damage in Africa. While it was pointed out that labour practices among Chinese firms are often very poor (although generally no worse than in China, India or Brazil), Dr Brautigam also ventured that there is no evidence of systemic damage to humans rights and anti-corruption in countries in which China operates. This is not to excuse these poor practices. Work must be done to improve them. But China’s engagement is a reality, and will not be reversed; therefore the West should work with the positives as well as highlighting the negatives.

Senator Durbin complained that Prime Minister Meles of Ethiopia had told him that he felt that the US had abandoned Africa, and that China was breathing new life. While it is somewhat unfair that the US and Europe contribute enormously to health care, disaster relief and food aid without gaining the same credit as China for its infrastructure support, the west’s obsession with alleviating suffering in Africa is symptomatic of the wider perception of Africa as a basket case, worthy of sympathy rather than belief. Furthermore the discussion of getting the deserved credit somewhat devalues the idea that the West’s support is without self-interest. China’s business like pragmatism has been part of its success in Africa, as African leaders have enjoyed being treated as equals. Western paternalism is unsurprisingly seen as patronising. No one likes feeling pitied or ignored.

The way in which the US pursues relationships was another area of particular interest. The discussants pointed to diplomacy as an area for potential improvement. Stephen Hayes pointed out that a US Secretary of Commerce hasn’t visited Africa in over a decade, and during ten years of fantastic economic growth. Chinese embassies actively support Chinese businesses, Mr Hayes suggested this was not matched by US diplomats. Writing in the Daily Nation, Mukhisa Kituyi pointed out in his article last weekthat China regularly holds Sino-African conferences gathering African presidents to meet China’s top policy makers and discuss aid and investment. He writes, “[e]ach head of state has a brief photo session with the hosts, and country-specific programmes are announced. Every leader feels appreciated”. It is telling that it was Senator Durbin and not Secretary Clinton that was visiting Prime Minister Meles, Prime Minister of the 12th largest economy and the second biggest population in Africa.

While relations with African countries could be improved, the US could also engage better with China. Chinese companies have made attempts to improve their practices. Dr Brautigam and Dr Shinn pointed out that both environmental and bribery policies were slowly getting better. As a signatory to the UN compact against bribery China has now made overseas bribery a crime. It will take some time to be properly enforced, but it shows willing. Some Chinese companies have used western firms to perform their social and environmental impact assessments. Dr Brautigam also pointed out that the OECD is the vehicle the West uses to define corporate practices against bribery and counterfeiting, yet China is not a member. It seems clear that more channels need to be opened to consider how to engage China in the same way that developed nations engage each other to set the rules.

US oil and mining firms could potentially benefit from the infrastructure investment that China is making, while US firms are unlikely to be able to compete in the provision of the services in which China has such a clear advantage, like railway building or telecoms. The overwhelming message of the discussion was that China’s engagement is a reality. The US and other western powers should stop worrying about whether the Chinese model is fair. That is up to Africa to decide. African success over the past decade should be the focus of attention. This should necessitate a private sector led engagement. For US policy China’s role is incidental, and should be embraced in terms of the incredible catalysing role it has played in Africa’s recent development.