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Hidden Dragon, Crouching Lion: How China's Advance in Africa is Underestimated and Africa's Potential Underappreciated

Hidden Dragon, Crouching Lion: How China's Advance in Africa is Underestimated and Africa's Potential Underappreciated - Cover

Authored by David E. Brown.

September 2012

128 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The explosive growth of China’s economic interests in Africa—bilateral trade rocketed from $1 billion in 1990 to $150 billion in 2011—may be the most important trend in the continent’s foreign relations since the end of the Cold War. In 2010, China surpassed the United States as Africa’s top trading partner; its quest to build a strategic partnership with Africa on own its terms through tied aid, trade, and development finance is also part of Beijing’s broader aspirations to surpass the United States as the world’s preeminent superpower. Africa and other emerging economies have become attractive partners for China not only for natural resources, but as growing markets. Africa’s rapid growth since 2000 has not just occurred because of higher commodity prices, but more importantly due to other factors including improved governance, economic reforms, and an expanding labor force. China’s rapid and successful expansion in Africa is due to multiple factors, including economic diplomacy that is clearly superior to that of the United States. China’s “no strings attached” approach to development, however, risks undoing decades of Western efforts to promote good governance. Consequently, this monograph examines China’s oil diplomacy, equity investments in strategic minerals, and food policy toward Africa. The official U.S. rhetoric is that China’s rise in Africa should not be seen as a zero-sum game, but areas where real U.S.-China cooperation can help Africa remain elusive, mainly because of Beijing’s hyper-mistrust of Washington. The United States could help itself, and Africa, by improving its own economic diplomacy and adequately funding its own soft-power efforts.


The first part of the title of this monograph is arguably a misnomer. How can China—the Dragon—be hidden, if its presence in Africa is so obvious to Africans? Africans see evidence of the new China everywhere, from Chinese traders who have appeared in their markets, to Chinese construction or mining firms, and to even the Chinese consumer products found everywhere. Yet, for most Americans, China in Africa is a hidden dragon. They remain unaware that a rising China—the greatest partner and rival of the United States in the 21st century—has already arrived in a big way on a continent that is the ancestral home of so many Americans as well as the cradle of all mankind. Americans also remain stuck in old images of Africa: famine, poverty, and desperation, instead of the continent’s new reality of progress, prosperity, and hope.

Two members of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, DC, recently exchanged e-mails about China, Africa, and the West. The first, based in the Center’s regional office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, recounted news that Chinese President Hu Jintao would visit the Ethiopian capital in January 2012 to inaugurate a new $200 million headquarters of the African Union paid for by Beijing—China’s greatest ever gift to Africa and a soft power tour de force. The second colleague’s response to this e-mail was brief, but wise: “China rises . . . while the West sleeps.” China is indeed rising, and the extraordinary increase over the last 20 years in the breadth, depth, and complexity of its economic interests and presence in Africa mirrors its rise in other parts of the world.

This monograph is divided into four parts: Part 1 describes how China is leading other developing countries—including the other three “BRIC” countries (Brazil, Russia, and India)—in expanding aid, trade, and investment with Africa, defined here as North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Part 2 answers five major questions regarding the China-Africa economic relationship: Why China chose to expand its economic ties to Africa; why it has been so successful in expanding rapidly; whether new trade credits and development loans are creating a new African debt burden; whether African industrialization will be aided or hindered by China; and what the impact of new, nonstate Chinese actors (companies and individuals) will be on Africa. Part 3 addresses the strategic importance to China of its oil, minerals, and agriculture trade with and investments in Africa, while Part 4 discusses U.S. responses to China’s advance into Africa.

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