Sunday, August 9, 2015

Guest Post: When the U.S. visits Africa, so does China

Photo: Ben Curtis, AP via The Detroit News
This guest post is by Janet Eom, the Research Manager at the SAIS China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

After his historic Africa tour, President Barack Obama is back in Washington. It was the first time a sitting U.S. president visited Kenya and Ethiopia, and Obama’s roots in Kenya lent a personal touch. But even in a story of the U.S. in Africa, China was present.

The U.S.-China-Africa plot went something like this: Africa, young and quickly growing, is the place of the future. However, U.S. trade with the continent is declining, China’s is growing. But not to worry: where China is extracting minerals, the U.S. is planting good intentions. At the AU Headquarters (constructed by Beijing) in Addis Ababa, Obama declared, “Economic relationships can’t simply be about building countries’ infrastructure with foreign labor or extracting Africa’s natural resources. Real economic partnerships have to be a good deal for Africa. They have to create jobs and capacity for Africans. That is the kind of partnership America offers.”

But as this is a story of diplomacy, how much exactly have the two governments’ leaders visited Africa? There is rhetoric, but there is also the decision to visit in the first place.

Into Africa: A Timeline

In 2009, the year Obama became president, China became Africa’s largest trading partner, surpassing the U.S. Although we can’t conclude a cause-effect relationship between presidential visits and changes in trade, it is interesting to look at patterns. This approximate timeline of visits that involved meeting with African governments in the several years before and after 2009 is strung together via the U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian and China Vitae.

George W. Bush, 2001-2009
7 days in 2003
June 2-3: Egypt

July 8: Senegal
July 8-10: South Africa
July 10: Botswana
July 11: Uganda
July 11-12: Nigeria

9 days in 2008
January 16: Egypt

February 16: Benin
February 16-19: Tanzania
February 19: Rwanda
February 19-21: Ghana
February 21: Liberia

May 17-18: Egypt

Hu Jintao, 2003-2013
7 days in 2004
January 29-February 1: Egypt
February 1- 3: Gabon
February 3-4: Algeria

6 days in 2006
April 24-26: Morocco
April 26-27: Nigeria
April 27-29: Kenya

11 days in 2007
January 31-February 1: Cameroon
February 1-2: Liberia
February 2-3: Sudan
February 3-5: Zambia
February 5-6: Namibia
February 6-8: South Africa
February 8-9: Mozambique
February 9-10: Seychelles

6 days in 2009
February 12-13: Mali
February 13-15: Senegal
February 15-17: Tanzania
February 17: Mauritius

Bonus: Hu Jintao spoke at FOCAC in Beijing in 2006 and 2012
Barack Obama, 2009- 
3 days in 2009
June 4: Egypt

July 10-11: Ghana

7 days in 2013 (traveled with the First Lady)
June 26-28: Senegal
June 28-July 1: South Africa
July 1-2: Tanzania
July 2: Senegal (stopped during return to Washington)

5 days in 2015
July 25-27: Kenya
July 27-29: Ethiopia

Bonus: August 4-6, 2014: U.S.-Africa summit of 50 out of 54 African heads of state in Washington D.C.
Xi Jinping, 2013-
7 days in 2013
March 24-26: Tanzania
March 26-29: South Africa (Durban for BRICS Summit)
March 29-30: The Congo

Quick Observations:
  • Five months into his presidency, Obama made his first visit to Africa. Xi made his two weeks after assuming office, his first foreign tour. As many people suggest, are Obama’s second-term, “end-heavy” Africa tours an after-the-fact catch-up effort? Indeed, Hu intensely traversed Africa every one to two years, before halting once the trade balance shifted in 2009. However, at the same time, Bush did conduct pre-2009 tours in both his terms. With more information, it would be interesting to track whether the trade changed first, then the tours, or vice versa.
  • While both Obama and Bush made short stops, neither Hu nor Xi had one or two day stopovers – all their visits were tours, with Hu visiting a whopping 8 countries in 11 days at one point. Perhaps this is because Chinese media does not publicize short visits, focusing on significant, committed trips instead. But maybe the Chinese trips are purposefully long to convey stateliness and intention. Chinese diplomats have been associated with formality and red carpet treatment to convey importance. Meanwhile, Obama emphasized his personal identity as the first Kenyan-American president of the U.S. What is the role of culture in diplomacy in Africa?
  • Overlap of countries between U.S. and China visits: Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia, South Africa, Senegal, and Tanzania. What may be some common priorities for potential U.S.-China-Africa collaboration in these countries?

Of course, counting visits only goes so far and there’s a lot to explore beyond this post’s scope; we need to track concrete commitments. But leader-to-leader diplomacy is symbolic, conveying priorities and intention. For now, it seems that any future U.S. or Chinese state visit to Africa will not occur without drawing comparisons to the other. It will be something for the next U.S. president to ponder.

Additional Sources:

"Chinese, Kenyan Presidents Agree to Enhance Co-op.", 28 Apr. 2006. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <>.
"Chinese President Concludes Five-nation Trip." Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People's Republic of China, 18 Feb. 2009. Web. 04 Aug. 2015. <>.
"Chinese President Hu Jintao Wraps up Successful African Tour." China View. Xinhua News Agency, 11 Feb. 2007. Web. 04 Aug. 2015. <>.
"President Hu's Arab-African Visit Fruitful: FM." China View. Xinhua News Agency, 30 Apr. 2006. Web. 4 Aug. 2015. <>.
Stone, Amanda. "President Obama Travels to Kenya and Ethiopia." The White House Blog. The White House, 26 July 2015. Web. 04 Aug. 2015. <>.

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