This past week, the US Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs subcommittee held a session on China’s role in Africa and its implications for US policy.
The committee chairman, Senator Chris Coons, set the tempo of the meeting with his observation that while China overwhelmingly invested in prestigious infrastructure projects, US was concentrating on the less visible projects like fighting malaria and HIV/Aids.
“We may be winning the war on disease while losing the battle for hearts and minds in Africa,” he said. For some time now, the West has been wondering how to stem the rising profile of China in Africa and the related decline of Western influence.
The news that China has overtaken the US as the single largest trading partner of Africa over the past two years does not help matters either.
The usual banter about China embracing repressive regimes and Western emphasis on open society ever yielding diminishing friends recurred at every turn.
The West continues to be confounded by why governments they help around Africa continue to tilt towards China. How the African intelligentsia, overwhelmingly educated in the West and major consumers of Western cultural products like movies, music and lifestyles appear to have their heads turned to a China whose language and habits are profoundly alien to them.
Many good arguments about strategy have been made. But one little matter appears to elude the eye of Western analysts. Africa craves a respect China offers that the West does not.
Most Africans appreciate Western technology and ingenuity. Yet a perverse expectation that Africans will be friends on the basis of gifts and mutual embrace of Western habits is ill-advised.
The Sino-Africa conference on trade and development is the masterpiece of Chinese trade diplomacy with Africa.
For this parley, China brings together the largest gathering of African presidents to meet the top leaders of China and discuss the premier frontiers of aid and investment for the coming years.
Each head of state has a brief photo session with the hosts, and country-specific programmes are announced. Every leader feels appreciated.
The African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) is a law setting out a basket of preferential market access for African exports to the US.
The annual Agoa forum is the principle forum for US-Africa trade diplomacy. A decade since its inception, the US Secretary of Commerce has never attended an Agoa forum in Africa.
Every year, assembled African ministers have been addressed by the US President via video link. At best, the Secretary of State has made a brief stopover at the forum to state the warm relations between US and Africa.
The Agoa forum in Lusaka last June was a pointer to the attention this relationship has reached. At its opening, the US trade representative (minister for International Trade), who was to give a keynote speech, was absent.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was much heralded as the key visitor to the forum. By some strange planning, she made this part of an African tour which took her to Ethiopia and Tanzania.
By the time she arrived in Lusaka, the forum was over and most African ministers had left for the tripartite Free Trade Area Summit in South Africa. In her brief speech she warned Africa to be wary of a new colonialism from China.
Not that Europe is doing too well either. Apart from the unilateral statement a month ago that EU would punish countries in Africa which had not ratified the Economic Partnership Agreements (Epa) negotiated by 2007, the most memorable recent statement from Europe to Africa was delivered by British Prime Minister David Cameron at the end of the Commonwealth heads of state conference this week.
Britain, he declared, will cut foreign aid to African countries which do not respect the rights of gay people. This is not how hearts and souls are won.
This is talking at leaders of governments who normally would assume that their international relations are grounded in at least a pretence of mutual respect.
Not an expectation that they will respond to the mantra of foreign aid with the emotional predictability of Pavlov’s dog.
Dr Kituyi is a director of the Kenya Institute of Governance [email protected]