Over today and tomorrow, President Obama and President Xi will be having their first meeting as the top leaders of the United States and China.  The format and content of their meetings are expected to be unprecedented, hopefully leading to a strengthened personal relationship between the two with improved coordination and cooperation.  The big ticket items on the agenda are known, including North Korea, cyber-security and bilateral trade.  

Though political watchers may be less aware that the meeting comes on the eve of President Obama’s trip to Africa and barely two months after the BRICS summit in Africa and President’s Xi extended stay on the continent.  In fact, two out of the three African countries on the visit overlap.  Coming to the California summit, the question is will Africa make it onto the agenda? Probably not.  But here are four reasons why Africa deserves attention from the two leaders:

1. Growing Trade Opportunities Africa for the U.S. and China

These two countries have helped Africa become the fastest growing continent in the last decade and helped the continent weather the global crisis.  Over the last decade, Africa was able to diversify its exports markets with a growing share of exports going to China.  Sub-Sahara Africa exports to China alone grew at an annualized growth rate of 33 percent between 2000 and 2008; it has slightly dropped since but remains high.  Over the same period, average annual growth of exports from sub-Saharan Africa grew by 17 percent.  Over the last decade the share of sub-Saharan African exports to the United States has remained steady at around 23 percent while exports to China have grown rapidly coming from a low base of only 5 percent in 2000 to about 15 percent in 2012.  The combination of these two factors has underpinned the growth of the continent.  Both American and Chinese opportunities for growth in trade with Africa are growing along with the demand from Africa’s growing middle class.  The two countries do not necessarily need to cooperate on trade with African nations, but the discussion of how to engage is vital.

2. Building U.S.-China Consensus for Extractive Industry Transparency

Building a consensus around natural resource transparency would require both countries working together in a multilateral environment.  Africa’s exports to both the U.S. and China are largely resource-based with petroleum and natural gas (55 percent), metal ores, non-ferrous metals and iron and steel (20 percent) accounting for the bulk of total exports to the two countries.  As China continues its efforts to enter new markets, thus creating more competition, it is important that traditional partners like the U.S. maintain and continue to build an ever increasing presence in Africa to ensure that the consumers get the best results from increased competition.  In this regard, there is a need to establish globally transparent rules of engagement in the minerals sector to ensure that trade in mineral resources does not continue to fuel local conflict and that the resources from the mining sector are transparently allocated.  The passage of the Dodd-Frank Act in the U.S. has set a high standard for transparency and other major economic powers like China should be encouraged to adopt similar procedures, which should not undermine their economic objectives but contribute significantly to improving global economic governance.

3. The Possibility of Complimentary Collaboration for Development Financing

There is great potential for the U.S. and China collaborate on development financing to Africa. China is currently fueling the rudimentary economic development of Africa through infrastructure projects and revenue creation.  However, such efforts lack a long-term vision about the sustainable development associated with better economic governance.  On the other hand, while the U.S. contributes significantly to the capacity building and governance improvement, Washington is intrinsically hindered in providing more development financing due to its own fiscal constraints.  If the two could work together it would create larger momentum for better hardware (infrastructure) and software (governance) leading to a better-managed future for the continent.

4. A Common Interest for Peace and Security

Last but not least, as both Beijing and Washington see a large vested interest in the peace and stability of Africa, there exist a common interest and a need for them to work collaboratively on potential security challenges in less stable areas like Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The United States has repeatedly reiterated that the peace and stability of Africa is a top priority for U.S. policy toward the continent.  In the past, China has displayed less enthusiasm in African domestic politics and conflicts.  However, as China’s economic presence and interests in the continent grows rapidly, the Chinese are beginning to realize that peace and security in the region are critical for the health and profitability of China’s projects there.

Contemplating Africa as a Priority Area for Strengthening Ties

Beyond examining the need for an Africa conversation between the two leaders, unfortunately, there is a realistic assessment that the discussion will not happen.  After all, the Africa consultation at the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogues has been and most likely will continue to be the highest venue for the bilateral dialogue on the issue.  In a way, Africa has been a back burner issue for both countries due to its geographical distance and relatively lower status in the international system.  Although the U.S. and China compete with each other both politically and economically in their pursuits in Africa, the more confrontational aspects of their competition dwell on their own bilateral economic issues and regional security challenges in the Asia-Pacific.

However, as the two leaders attempt to craft a “new type of big power relationship” and build trust in each other, the less acute nature of Africa for both countries could perhaps become a potential priority area for cooperation and trust-building.  The U.S. and China will have to start somewhere, and since Africa is less sensitive for both, the two leaders should consider how they might explore and exploit the opportunities that Africa has to offer. Certainly, Africa stands ready to gain from the discussion.