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Tillerson's bashing on China in Africa proves futile

By CHEN WEIHUA | | Updated: 2018-03-09 06:07

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would be just fine if he cut his 27-minute speech a bit short on Tuesday at George Mason University before embarking on his five-nation African trip.

Instead, he chose to accuse China that its African activity is encouraging dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them their long-term, self-sustaining growth.

The top US diplomat also attacked China as being a colonial power before his trip to Latin America a month ago, only to be met by Peruvian Trade and Tourism Minister Eduardo Ferreyros who praised China as a good trade partner.

The same is true in Africa. When Tillerson landed in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, on Wednesday on his first leg of the trip, he would be surprised to see a shiny and modern light rail system that was built by China Railway Group Ltd and began operation in 2015, a year I made a reporting tour to the promising African nation.

He would also be struck by a 759-km modern railway linking Addis Ababa with neighboring Djibouti that began commercial operations on Jan 1 this year. More than 95 percent of the trade of landlocked Ethiopia passes through Djibouti.

When Tillerson claimed the US sees a bright future in Africa, I thought he meant China, not only because I wrote about Chinese optimism in Africa, the BBC also reported on Tuesday that Chinese construction firms have made significant improvements to long-neglected infrastructure in a number of countries.

Chinese believe that Ethiopia and many African countries have the potential to repeat China's economic miracle while avoiding all the mistakes China made in the past four decades.

Tillerson should tour the Eastern Industrial Zone in Dukem just outside Addis Ababa where Chinese companies are contributing to the local industrial modernization, training workers and creating tens of thousands of jobs. It would soon invalidate all of Tillerson's accusations about China.

David Dollar, a former US Treasury emissary in Beijing under the Obama administration and once a World Bank country director for China, has done extensive research about China in both Africa and Latin America. When I sought his views on accusations by Tillerson recently and Hillary Clinton a few years ago, he denounced their words as "nonsense", "hard to back up with evidence" and "a humiliation" to the African and Latin American countries.

Douglas Paal, director of the Asia program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, just returned from a fact-finding trip in Africa. In a talk at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, he praised China's economic activity there and said it is welcomed by the countries there.

Paal, an expert on China who served at the George H. W. Bush's government, called Tillerson's speech on Tuesday as "terrible", "an impoverished speech conceptually and counterproductive tactically" and "setting American policy in the wrong direction".

Tillerson's speech may aim to distract African nations from their anger at US President Donald Trump who derided African nations in January as "shithole countries" or Tillerson's own deeds in the old days when he pushed for deals in African countries widely accused of corruption and poor human rights in his capacity as chief executive of Exxon Mobil. African oil exports account for some 90 percent of US-Africa trade.

Whatever the motive, Tillerson's scheme is unlikely to succeed in front of the enormous Chinese enthusiasm and optimism in African nations. Of course, Africa would benefit much more if US, instead of nitpicking about China, could join hands with China in tapping the huge growth potential of the continent.

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