Author Fine Tunes Description Of China's Investment In Africa

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In an interview with Steve Inskeep, author Howard French comments on Steve's discussion this week with National Security Advisor Susan Rice about U.S. and Chinese investment in Africa.


Let's follow up on this week's summit on Africa. Many of the continent's leaders came to Washington this week. U.S. officials made a pitch for American-style investment. National Security Adviser Susan Rice told MORNING EDITION that the U.S. has a better approach than China.


SUSAN RICE: Typically, the nature of China's engagement is it brings in thousands of Chinese workers and uses Chinese to build roads, build buildings, rather than giving jobs and opportunity and capacity building for Africans which is a real distinction between the American approach and the Chinese approach. The American approach is not to bring in a bunch of foreigners to take jobs from Africa, but it's actually to build African capacity.

INSKEEP: That's Susan Rice speaking on MORNING EDITION earlier this week. Now let's get another perspective from Howard French, author of "China's Second Continent" about China's investment in Africa. He's in Nairobi. Welcome back to the program, sir.

HOWARD FRENCH: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: So was that a fair description of the difference between the U.S. approach and the Chinese approach in Africa?

FRENCH: Well, American officials have really gone out of their way in the lead up to this summit to deny that this is really about China or competing with China, but when you hear this kind of rhetoric, it really creates the opposite impression. The fact is that the United States builds very little in China. So there's no way of making a very meaningful, direct comparison between the American way of doing business and civil engineering or construction and the way that China does business in this sector. However, one can say that until recently when Congress changed the law to change the eligibility to bar Chinese companies, the United States was spending lots of money to pay for Chinese companies to do contract work on its behalf in Africa. So there's a lot of irony wrapped up in the way Susan Rice has expressed this.

INSKEEP: Wow, well, I wonder if what Susan Rice was expressing was the Chinese reality versus the U.S. aspiration. China has done huge investment in Africa, but Susan Rice is saying that this is the way that she would like the United States to approach this in the future if it can.

FRENCH: I suspect there's some truth to that, but the United States has to do a much better job if you want to have a meaningful comparison. There's simply very little American civil engineering taking place in Africa. Everywhere one looks around the continent, it's the Chinese who are building things. You know, the United States just a few years ago spent $230 million to pay a Chinese company called Sinohydro to build an irrigation and waterworks system for an American project. The United States spent $71 million for the expansion of the Bamako airport, giving those funds to the same Chinese contractor, Sinohydro. And the problem was that American companies, as I was told by U.S. diplomats, couldn't be interested in this kind of contract work. Africa was just too unfamiliar to them, and the kinds of images that they had of Africa set by many years of certain kind of American press coverage were essentially just violence, corruption, disease and horror.

INSKEEP: Would African leaders and Africans-at-large prefer American companies to be doing business in Africa if they could get it?

FRENCH: I think that where Susan Rice has a point is that there is a certain amount of resentment, not necessarily in governing circles in Africa but at the sort of popular level, with a pattern that the Chinese have applied of bringing in lots and lots of ordinary workers to do this kind of contract work. There's a sense, and I think correctly, that the Chinese are not passing on a whole lot of know-how. And so making sure that 10 years down the road after having built a highway system, a certain number of African engineers have been trained so that they can either renovate the highway system after - when it's due for renovation or build the next generation highway system based on their experience via the Chinese contractors. There is the place for the United States to pitch a different way of doing business in Africa. It just simply hasn't been a player in doing so.

INSKEEP: Howard French, author of "China's Second Continent" thanks very much.

FRENCH: Thank you, Steve.

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