The U.S. and China are not actually competing in most of the African markets and sectors in which they are operational. They could in fact adopt much more official collaborative approaches and drop the political competitive rhetoric, which, regardless, economic agents are not following in practical terms.
The political rhetoric used by the U.S. and China to distinguish their respective economic policies toward Africa is misaligned with the actual strategy, investments and operations governmental agencies and companies from those same countries develop on the ground. The behavior of “real economic agents” in Africa, such as companies, follows much more closely notions and principles of complementarity, synchronization, comparative advantages, market niches and market segmentation, than principles of competition, market shares and rivalry.
While official discourse about the presence of these two countries in Africa has been inflamed with political intrigue and a competitive attitude, economic agents’ actual behavior shows a much broader propensity for collaboration. Will the competitive paradigm in geo-strategic politics hold Africa back once again?
“We don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources. We recognize Africa for its greatest resource which is its people and its talents and its potential,” President Obama stated during the US-Africa Leaders Summit held in the White House in August. The President continued: “We don’t simply want to extract minerals from the ground for our growth. We want to build partnerships that create jobs and opportunity for all our peoples, that unleash the next era of African growth.”
Though not explicit, this was an obvious jab at China. Similarly, from the other side of the world, earlier this year, the official news agency Xinhua quoted China’s Premier Li Keqiang as saying in an equally obvious jab at the west: “I wish to assure our African friends in all seriousness that China will never pursue a colonialist path like some countries did, or allow colonialism, which belongs to the past, to reappear in Africa.”
It is surprising how inconceivable it is for so many policymakers and market analysts that the logic of international relations might not be a zero-sum game. With sufficient information-processing capabilities about others’ past behavior and proper institutional features in place, such as the possibility for gains and for repeated interactions with one another, the pay-offs from cooperation and reciprocal altruism are greater. The nature of such institutional features help explains why competition is the predominant “behavior” between basic forms of biological and social organization where modern communication and information technologies are not available.
Looking at the presence of U.S. and China in Africa from a competitive lens makes very little sense and, worse, it is not constructive – not for African development and not for the economic expansion aspirations of the U.S. and China. A brief comparative analysis between the U.S. and China, in terms of development assistance to, and direct investment in, imports from and exports to Africa, helps illustrate how much indeed companies and government agencies are willing to collaborate. However, top politicians with easy access to various forms of communication for dissemination of their ideologies want to makes us all believe otherwise.
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