Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Obama's goal in Africa: Counter China

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Wed June 26, 2013
Senegal President Macky Sall and his wife Marieme Faye Sall welcome President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Thursday, June 27, at the presidential palace before meetings in Dakar. Obama arrived in Dakar late on June 26 to start his tour of Africa. Senegal President Macky Sall and his wife Marieme Faye Sall welcome President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Thursday, June 27, at the presidential palace before meetings in Dakar. Obama arrived in Dakar late on June 26 to start his tour of Africa.
HIDE CAPTION
U.S. presidents in Africa
U.S. presidents in Africa
U.S. presidents in Africa
U.S. presidents in Africa
U.S. presidents in Africa
U.S. presidents in Africa
U.S. presidents in Africa
U.S. presidents in Africa
U.S. presidents in Africa
U.S. presidents in Africa
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama is visiting Africa after years of little U.S. engagement with continent
  • Peter Bergen: China took advantage of the opportunity to vastly expand trade
  • He says Obama is seeking to counter China, show that U.S. is open for business
  • Some African economies are growing very fast, and there are forecasts for more growth

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst and a director at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- There is a one-word subtext to President Obama's trip to Africa: China.

After 9/11, the United States became embroiled in more than a decade of wars in Asia and the Middle East. As a result, U.S. engagement in Latin America and Africa largely atrophied.

Meanwhile, China saw an opportunity. China has now displaced the United States as the largest trading partners of two key Latin American countries, Brazil and Chile.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

China's economic rise is particularly marked in Africa; it quietly surpassed the United States as the continent's largest trading partner four years ago.

Sino-African trade is now estimated to be $200 billion a year and is expected to rise to $325 billion in the next two years.

While the conventional view has long been that Africa is largely a motley collection of economic basket cases, in fact, according to the most recent IMF figures, five out of 10 of the world's fastest-growing economies are in Africa.

Indeed, South Sudan, Libya and Sierre Leone are the globe's top three economic hot spots with projected 2013 growth rates of 32%, 20% and 17% respectively.

As if to underline the importance that the Chinese see in Africa, within two weeks of assuming office in March 2013, the new Chinese president Xi Jinping visited two of the three African countries Obama will be visiting on his African trip, Tanzania and South Africa.

China is the largest trading partner for both of those nations.

Read this: Obama 'plays catch up' in Africa

Seemingly as a result of its substantial investments and trade in Africa, China is well liked on the continent. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey found 92% of respondents held favorable views of China in the Ivory Coast and Mali, and between 67% and 81% held favorable views in Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Pew noted that these favorable views of China come at the expense of the United States: "China's influence is almost universally viewed as having a more beneficial impact on African countries than does that of the United States."

In other words, the United States has considerable catch up to play in Africa.

In 2012 then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured Africa and made what many assumed to be a not-so-thinly veiled swipe at China, which is heavily involved in African mineral and oil extraction: "The days of having outsiders come and extract the wealth of Africa for themselves, leaving nothing or very little behind, should be over..."

Obama is likely to avoid any criticism of China but he has chosen to visit Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa, countries that are all relatively functional democracies, and he is likely to dwell on the issues of good governance and respect for human rights in his public remarks, which will serve to subtly remind Africans that these are issues that the United States puts more value on than does China.

But the real message Obama will be signaling is that America is open for business with Africa. In Tanzania, the president will have a closed meeting with some two-dozen leading American and African CEOs. And, according to Jennifer Cooke, an expert on Africa at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, "some 500 business leaders will join the president at various points in his trip to assess the opportunities for themselves."

Perhaps they may conclude, as the World Bank did last year, that "Africa could be on the brink of an economic takeoff, much like China was 30 years ago, and India 20 years ago."

And if that happens, the United States, of course, would want to be part of this story.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT