US playing catch-up in Africa

US playing catch-up in Africa

ADDIS Ababa, the rapidly modernising capital of Ethiopia, is on track to host the tallest building in Africa by 2017. That landmark building, which will boast 99 floors of offices and hotel rooms, has a distinctly un-African name: Chuan Hui International Tower.

The tower, together with a host of other skyscrapers in the city - including the US$200 million (S$255.7 million) African Union headquarters built entirely with Chinese money - is a tangible sign of just how much Sino-Africa ties have grown.

It also serves as an imposing reminder to the United States of just how much catching up it has to do in the continent.

This week, the White House tried to make up some ground, announcing that it would invite 47 African leaders to Washington for an inaugural US-Africa Summit in August.

The list includes nearly all African heads of state. Absent will be a few currently not in good standing with the US, such as Egypt. In so doing, Mr Barack Obama becomes the first post-war American president to have a summit with African leaders.

Yet, there are clear speed bumps on the horizon. For all the US ambition in the region, it may find that it cannot gain the same sort of traction that China has. And this is not entirely down to just a slow start.

In the global contest for opportunities in emerging markets, more countries - from Ethiopia and Nigeria to Myanmar - are finding that it is often simpler to do business with the Chinese. While increasing ties with the US can sometimes be muddled in a mess of Western democratic values, the Chinese are all about the money.

The US announcement, coming a year after the idea for a summit was first announced by Mr Obama in South Africa, was met almost instantly with calls for accountability.

Government-funded broadcaster Voice of America quoted Professor Sulayman Nyang, the former chair of the African studies department at Howard University in Washington, urging Mr Obama to push for progress on human rights and corruption as a condition for getting an invite to Washington.

For instance, he sees the increasing number of African countries that are passing anti-gay legislation as a sticking point.

"One problem that the Obama administration is going to face, and with congressional leaders very nice to gay groups in this country and in the West, (is) what are you going to tell some of the countries in Africa (that) are opposed to gay groups? This is where you're going to have a big contradiction in Western policy," said Prof Nyang.

Making things worse is the old American mindset of Africa as a place that needs aid, rather than as a region with seven of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies. Washington is also liable to get distracted by events in the Middle East and its pivot to Asia.

Still, the US knows it cannot afford to sit on its hands and let the African opportunity pass.

To meet the administration's stated goal of doubling US exports to US$2 trillion by next year, it needs to find new markets overseas.

And while Chinese and Indian consumers will no doubt figure prominently in the plan, the growing African middle class is key.

African consumer spending is projected to rise from US$860 billion in 2008 to US$1.4 trillion in 2020. No other region in the world boasts such numbers.

And there are more than just two horses in this race. Brazil, India, Turkey and Japan have all ramped up ties in recent years. Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi were on overlapping African visits.

It is not yet clear if the US and Japan will be working together in the region to contain China's influence, although analysts say such an alliance makes sense.

Yet, for all the competing interests in Africa, Washington has sought not to cast it as a contest.

Said Mr Obama during his visit to Africa last year: "This is not a zero-sum game. This is not the Cold War."

Those now looking up at Chinese skyscrapers in Ethiopia might disagree.

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