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U.S trying to "play catch-up" with China's strong presence in Africa: expert

By Ntandoyenkosi Ncube (Xinhua)

08:44, June 26, 2013

JOHANNESBURG, June 25 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to Africa is part of Washington's efforts to try to "play catch-up" with China's strong presence in Africa, an expert has said.

Trade and investment is most likely to be high on the agenda of Obama's discussions with African leaders, including South African President Jacob Zuma, said Ross Anthony, research fellow of the Center for Chinese Studies of (CCS) at Stellenbosch University near Cape Town.

"The U.S. will continue to push Africa on democracy and human rights reforms – it will also try to further cooperation in terms of terrorism," Anthony said.

"While those were the main agenda's in past visits, the issue of trade and investment will also most likely now be higher on the agenda. This will make a shift in America's engagement, and Africa will have China to thank for that," he added.

Obama is set to be in South Africa on Friday. His African trip, which will run from June 26 to July 3, will be his second African visit since 2009. Last year, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also in Africa to advance Washington's Africa interests.

Anthony said Obama will be traveling with an entourage of several hundred businessmen and the key target for the trip in Africa is to further investment "particularly in light of the fact that the Chinese are quite some way ahead in this regard."

"They might take less kindly to lectures on human rights abuses (this time) as the American record in this regard is increasingly tarnished with their adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan."

"There will also be resistance to Obama's visit. For instance, there is a 'No-Obama' campaign underway, behind which the powerful the COSATU (the Congress of South African Trade Unions) is putting its weight," Anthony said.

Anthony said China's increased presence in Africa has given "Africans the luxury of being slightly more choosy as to what Americans bring to the table."

What is interesting about Obama's visit is that virtually no major news stories speak about the visit without mentioning China too, Anthony said.

"If 10 years ago an American president visited Africa, I doubt whether China would have been mentioned in the same breath," he said.

"This shift suggests how perceptions of China's engagement in Africa have changed."

"Of course, there is a difference between China's actual engagement in Africa and the perceptions of it - but perceptions count for a lot. So yes, certainly, I am sure that the idea of equalling, or perhaps even countering China's influence, is one of the intentions of the visit," he added.

He, however, said Beijing and Washington can cooperate primarily to promote Africa's development by engaging more in multilateral institutions which seek to promote the welfare of not only Africans but the larger developing world.

"For instance, both could be more involved in the Extractive Industries Transparency Imitative. Both these countries' companies are heavily involved in commodity extraction in Africa and both could do a lot more in terms of making such enterprises better serve the people from the countries in which they operate."

"They could also do more in terms of joint peace-keeping operations in troubled regions of Africa. Joint cooperation on the issue of piracy issue on the Horn of Africa is another example," he said.

According to Anthony, the best way China and U.S. can contribute to Africa's growth is to serve as competitors. "This will increase competition between the powers and give Africans a better deal," he added.

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