Fourteen years after Beijing hosted the first China-Africa summit, which was attended by virtually all African countries, the US is following suit with tomorrow’s opening of the first US-Africa Leaders Summit. Since the first institutionalization of China-Africa relations through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, high-level meetings between Chinese and African leaders have been taking place every three years resulting in increasingly comprehensive outcome declarations and action plans. The FOCAC Summit in 2006, attended by leaders from 48 African countries and more than 1000 journalists including 300 from Africa, can be seen as the starting point for global media attention on China-Africa relations.
In the following year the European Union (EU) hosted the 2nd EU-Africa Summit at which the ‘Joint Africa-EU Strategy’ was launched. This jointly developed strategy aims to provide a basis for the ‘new phase’ of Africa-EU relations with a ’strengthened political partnership and enhanced cooperation at all levels’ – based on an ’Euro-African consensus on values, common interests and common strategic objectives.’ The EU and African countries agreed to ‘move away from a traditional relationship and forge a real partnership characterized by equality and the pursuit of common objectives.’ This new focus and language used in the Strategy shows similarities with FOCAC outcome documents. Senegal’s then President Abdoulaye Wade interpreted this ‘new phase‘ as the EU’s reaction to expanding China-Africa relations.
In 2008 African leaders were invited to India to launch the India-Africa Forum Summit for India-Africa relations. At the first Summit 14 African heads of state and government and the Prime Minister of India jointly adopted the Africa-India Framework for Cooperation, which outlines specific areas of India-Africa cooperation. Similar to FOCAC, hosting arrangements for the triennial Summits alternate between India and African countries.
Japan has been a frontrunner in creating a high-level institutional arrangement for its relations with African countries through the establishment of the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in 1993. However, the scope of TICAD significantly expanded only at its fifth meeting with the adoption of the Yokohama Declaration 2013 and the Yokohama Action Plan 2013-2017 coupled with Japan’s USD 32 billion aid pledge to be delivered until 2017. This new commitment was followed by a rare visit of Japan’s Prime Minister to three African countries in 2014. During his Africa tour he delivered a speech at the African Union headquarters highlighting that due to its natural resources and dynamic economic growth Africa now ’carries the hopes of the world’. Similar to the United States, Japan focuses on creating conducive business environments to facilitate Japanese investments in natural resources extraction on the African continent.
Following Japan’s criticism of China’s engagement in Africa in the context of the fifth TICAD, Chinese diplomats have taken a concerted approach to portray the Japanese Prime Minster’s African tour in 2014 in a negative way. It would not be surprising to see a similar reaction from China regarding the US-Africa Summit, if the US decides to criticize China’s cooperation with African countries during the Summit. A surprising statement by President Obama in this direction could already be read in the Economist this week. He was quoted as having said that China’s need for natural resources may color its investments in ways that are less true for America. He further advised African leaders to make sure that if China is putting in roads and bridges that they’re hiring African workers and that roads don’t just lead from the mine, to the port, to Shanghai.
The main objectives of the first US-Africa Summit are ’to strengthen US trade and investment ties with one of the world’s most dynamic and fastest-growing regions and to highlight America’s commitment to Africa’s security, its democratic development, and its people.’ 50 African leaders who are in ‘good standing with the United States’ have been invited to attend the Summit, excluding Central African Republic, Eritrea, Sudan and Zimbabwe. In response Zimbabwe dismissed the Summit as a non-event that the US organizes out of concern over China’s growing engagement in Africa and that the American business community will remain interested in Zimbabwe’s natural resources independent of the Summit.
Whether the Summit will mark the beginning of a new chapter of US-Africa relations remains to be seen. There are however first signs that make a change in rhetoric and focus, similar to the EU-Africa Summit in 2007, rather unlikely. The focus seems to be on economic interests, like in the case of TICAD in 2013, and less on building broad partnerships among equals at different levels. In contrast to his Chinese counterpart, President Obama will not have the time for one-on-one meetings with African leaders. Hosting the Summit in the middle of the Washington summer recess can also not be seen as giving this event the highest priority. Furthermore, looking at the surprising tone of a recently published article by the Brookings Institute, one of the US’ most influential think tanks, also suggests that the Summit will not mark a shift in the US’ approach towards Africa. The author prescribes a list of what African heads of state ‘must’ do to make the Summit a success, including speaking as ‘Africa’ and not individual sovereign countries, focus on not turning the Summit into a ‘begging forum’ and leaving their advisers and spouses at home to ensure smooth logistical operations! It can only be hoped that the White House will not loose face by considering such recommendations.
Having toured an increasing number of Africa Summits in China, Europe, India and Japan, all with rising scope and prominence, it seems likely that African leaders are not heading to Washington with a ‘hat in hand’, but rather with the assurance that while the US remains a key partner for many African countries, there are other increasingly capable partners who are eager to engage. At this point the most likely outcome of the Summit seems to be some kind of ‘business-as-usual-but-now-on-a-higher-level’.