Why Beijing saw Obama trip to Africa as a challenge

August 04, 2015 09:15
On his trip to Africa, Barack Obama took the opportunity to promote democracy and human rights. Photo: AFP

Last week, Barack Obama visited Kenya, his father’s birthplace, for the first time since becoming US president in 2009.

Also on his itinerary was Ethiopia.

It was the first time a serving American president has visited either country.

In Kenya, he was given a tumultuous welcome and received as a native son.

He met with his sister and several dozen other relatives.

No doubt, the visit would have taken place earlier had it not been for domestic American politics and charges that he had been born in Kenya, not the US.

In both Kenya and Ethiopia, Obama openly discussed human rights, including the rights of homosexuals.

It was a grand display of upholding American values, despite China’s growing inroads into the continent -- to such an extent that China’s trade with Africa is now triple that of the United States, whereas only 10 years ago, it was half the US level.

Obama, keenly aware of this situation, has been working to enhance America’s economic relations with the continent.

Last year, for the first time, the US invited dozens of African leaders for a summit in Washington, including business leaders from both sides.

Last week in Nairobi, Obama took part in a US-sponsored business summit, where he hailed Africa as “one of the fastest-growing regions of the world”.

He announced more than US$1 billion in start-up financing for businesses in Africa and promised to host another forum next year to “mobilize billions of dollars in new trade and investment.”

In a pre-trip interview with the BBC, Obama acknowledged that China had in recent years funneled “an awful lot of money into Africa, basically in exchange for raw materials”.

He said that the Chinese used “the surplus that they’ve accumulated in global trade and the fact that they’re not accountable to their constituencies”.

During his four-day African sojourn, Obama did not explicitly compare China and the US.

In an address to “the people of Africa” at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, he said it was a good thing “when more countries invest responsibly in Africa”.

But, he said, “economic relationships can’t simply be about building countries’ infrastructure with foreign labor or extracting Africa’s natural resources.

"Real economic partnerships have to be a good deal for Africa – they have to create jobs and opportunities for Africans”.

Although he was clearly seeking African support, Obama did not pull his punches, warning Kenyans about their country’s “culture of corruption” and condemning “bad traditions” such as female genital mutilation.

At a joint news conference, Obama supported gay and lesbian rights, while Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, insisted that “for Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue”.

In Ethiopia, where the governing party and its allies won 100 percent of the seats in parliamentary elections in May, Obama suggested a need for democratic reforms.

Obama observed in the presence of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn that “the governing party has significant breadth and popularity” and proposed “additional space for journalists, for media, for opposition voices”.

The Ethiopian leader did not contradict him, saying that his country was “a fledging democracy” that was “coming out of centuries of undemocratic practices and culture”.

He said that Ethiopia should “learn the best practices of the United States and age-old democracies, because this is a process of learning and doing”.

On the surface, at least, Obama got his message across in both Kenya and Ethiopia while maintaining mutual goodwill.

His African heritage no doubt helped.

Such a discussion is unimaginable for Chinese leaders, who have a policy of noninterference in other countries and who oppose any perceived lecturing by Americans on human rights or democracy.

Although China was not mentioned, its presence was clearly felt.

Responding to a question, Kenyatta denied that Kenya was “looking east” but said that “we are looking to partner with our friends, old and new”.

The Chinese state media clearly saw the Obama trip as a challenge.

A Global Times commentary said its purpose was to offset “China’s growing influence and recovering past US leverage”.

The official Xinhua news agency declared: “The Obama administration’s foreign policy toward Africa, like that of his white predecessors, has been a total failure.”

It concluded: “African people were fooled by the West before; they will not be fooled again.

"If the US and the West continue to bring destruction and violence to Africa … they will be doomed throughout Africa in the end.”

Such diatribes suggest weakness, not strength.

Let the facts speak for themselves.

Africans can make their own decisions regarding whether to opt for democracy or authoritarianism.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.