Courting Africa

February 19, 2007

While much of the world's attention is focused on conflicts of the Middle East, a growing competition is under way for influence in Africa - another leading source of oil with rising strategic importance.

Chinese President Hu Jintao recently completed a 12-day, eight-nation tour of the continent, during which he sought to strengthen economic, political and military ties developed during an aggressive courtship of African leaders over the past decade.

Partway through his visit, U.S. officials announced they, too, were taking a heightened interest in Africa, to be reflected in a new military command President Bush said would not only advance peace and security but also promote "development, health, education, democracy and economic growth."

What's heartening, as these two potential suitors compete for the continent's riches, is that Africans are signaling they won't tolerate the exploitation that marked their unhappy experience with colonial powers.

Even better would be if Americans and Chinese can go beyond simple non-exploitation to combine in a positive force to help Africans stabilize their fragile governments and economies.

President Hu seemed on the defensive for much of his trip, responding to African complaints that China extracts its oil and mineral resources and then floods African markets with cheap manufactured goods, particularly textiles, destroying local industries and creating huge trade imbalances.

At the same time, some African leaders appreciate China's policy of not interfering on human rights matters and other internal conflicts. Despite a direct U.S. appeal for bolder action, Mr. Hu only gently raised the issue of allowing U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur with Sudanese leaders while promising them $17 million to build a new palace.

The U.S. has been far more involved than China in diplomatic and humanitarian efforts on the continent, but remains primarily focused on security and anti-terrorism concerns. In fact, many believe the United States might have pushed harder for a resolution on Darfur but for fears of losing Khartoum's cooperation in tracking down terrorists.

As China's power and influence grow to match its potential, this country has more to gain from cooperation than competition. Africa is a good place to put that policy to the test.

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