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China has the U.S. playing catch-up in Africa

Will the next several decades signal the African continent's arrival as an economic power?

China appears to think so, and -- much to the concern of the U.S. -- it has invested lots of time and money in some African countries.

On Monday, for example, Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Beijing with Zimbabwe's long-time leader, Robert Mugabe. The two reportedly discussed additional ways the People's Republic could economically assist Zimbabwe -- a nation Mugabe has ruled since its independence in 1980 and whose despotic policies have driven away many foreign investors.

According to recent analysis by the Brookings Institution, China surpassed the U.S. as Africa's largest trading partner five years ago. It noted China-Africa trade reached $198.5 billion in 2012, compared to $99.8 billion in U.S.-Africa trade over the same period.

President Obama toasts the "new Africa"

No wonder President Barack Obama has been very public in his courting of African interests.

Earlier this month, he invited to Washington dozens of African heads of state, as well hundreds of government officials and representatives from over 90 American and African companies, for a three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

The Obama administration and private U.S. business are also committing $33 billion to improve Africa's infrastructure, while strengthening economic times and boosting trade.

"We have to do better, much better," President Obama remarked during the summit. "I want Africans buying more American products, I want Americans buying more African products."

Obama says U.S. business will invest billions in Africa

But Beijing appears to have a head start over Washington when it comes to investments in Africa, thanks to China's decades of demand for the raw materials needed to help power its historic economic growth.

"China is looking primarily in Africa for energy resources, oil and gas and minerals, particularly iron ore and copper, to help fuel its its economic growth boom, its growing economy and a push on construction and infrastructure within China," said Jennifer Cooke, director of the African Program at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cooke noted that, while China's motivation in Africa has been primarily commercial, it has increased its diplomatic and cultural presence in the region and has ratcheted-up aid and economic assistance.

According to the Brookings Institution, close to 46 percent of China's overall foreign aid in 2009 -- 256.9 billion Chinese yuan, or about $41.6 billion U.S. -- went to African countries.

Chinese companies are also investing in expanding construction and infrastructure in some African countries, whereas private U.S. companies, according to Cooke, "have been much more risk-averse and see other opportunities, better opportunities, elsewhere in the world."

However, that trend appears to be changing, especially as the Chinese economy slows and American business interests take a fresh look at the African market.

Despite years of dire headlines, Cooke noted, "Africa is not all disease, conflict and poverty. There are opportunities for high returns on investment, big deals both in the extractive industries but also in banking, in infrastructure, in telecommunications and IT. So, the U.S., I think, is waking up to that fact."

Plus, some African nations are much more integrated into the global economy. Cooke said while some countries in Africa have gone through commodity booms in the past, the current economic landscape is different, with annual GDP growth rising at an average rate of 5 percent across the continent over the past decade.

With those stronger economies, African governments are diversifying their business interests into other sectors, which in turn is attracting more international investment while helping create a growing consumer-oriented middle class.

Cooke added that in recent years, China's approach to investment in Africa has been very popular there. Unlike the West, China has no colonial or slave trade history in the region. And in some African nations, such as Zimbabwe, the People's Republic is remembered fondly for its support of post-colonial liberation movements during the 1960s and 70s.

However, while many African governments embraced China's economic engagement starting in the 1990s, resentment has also surfaced. A flood of inexpensive Chinese textiles into Africa has hurt some local manufacturing economies and costing African workers their jobs.

And the influx of Chinese workers to Africa has also created tensions.

"China often brings its own workers, environmental standards and worker safety issues," said Cooke. "There were big protests in Zambia because of an explosion and a big mining accident in a Chinese-owned firm. And in Gabon there was a push-back, because a Chinese oil company hadn't done the due diligence on the environmental impact of oil exploration."

So, the U.S. is still in the race. A recent Pew Research Center survey found a majority of sub-Sarharan African countries welcome economic investment from both the U.S. and China.

At the same time, Cooke warns investors -- and others -- against looking at Africa as a monolithic entity.

"It's a continent of 54 countries, hugely diverse in political, economic and security terms," she said. "And there are some countries that are not doing well at all. So, when we talk about Africa rising, there are some countries that are beginning to get it right, in terms of strategic thinking about investment and growth. But others are really mired in corruption, or in conflict and insecurity and political instability."

But at the same time, Cooke pointed out that more African governments have revised their economic strategies when it comes to directing overseas investment to their nations, focusing on domestic investment in infrastructure, power and the other essentials that help to keep an economy moving.

"There is a younger generation that is a little bit more economically savvy, with better macroeconomic management," she added. "And that's making a difference."

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