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 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT