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 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT