Should Americans fear Chinese influence in Africa?

theGRIO REPORT - According to one estimate, trade between China and Africa grew by more than 1,000 percent between 2000 and 2010...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The 80th birthday party of an elderly churchman might provide compelling evidence of China’s growing influence in Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the religious leader whose role during the apartheid struggle made him into one of Africa’s moral guardians, invited guests from around the world to the celebrations in Cape Town last month. But as the likes of Bono and Richard Branson arrived in South Africa, it became clear that one of Tutu’s closest friends would not be there.

The Dalai Lama, who is amongst the most respected men in the world, couldn’t get a visa to enter the country. The South African authorities said that his office had failed to apply on time. But the real story, according to most people, was not of administrative failure but of a government that had deliberately prevaricated to ensure that the Tibetan spiritual leader could not visit. Their fear, it is said, was an angry reaction from China, which sees the Dalai Lama as an enemy.

South Africa might have reason to feel intimidated by Beijing. China is its biggest trading partner, to which it turns increasingly for goods and investment. A few days before Tutu’s birthday, the two countries announced a massive trade deal.

The blossoming China-Africa love affair is a relationship of convenience. It makes sense. It combines cheap goods with poor consumers in growing markets. According to one estimate, trade between China and Africa grew by more than 1,000 percent between 2000 and 2010.

theGrio: Senators say US losing sway in Africa as China rises

So where does this leave the influence of the United States in Africa? Way behind. Like the European powers, it seems that the US has failed to fully grasp the potential of Africa’s emerging markets. That’s why Senator Dick Durbin is working on a trade strategy for Africa aimed at rapidly increasing American exports to the continent.

But it is difficult to see how the US can compete with China’s no-strings attached investment. Dictators can spare themselves a lecture about democracy and human rights by signing up with Beijing. But even democratic governments might see Chinese investment as being simpler and more lucrative than most American alternatives.

Of course, the United States remains a military power in Africa, recently deploying 100 Special Forces to central Africa to help trace the leaders of a brutal guerrilla group. But to some, such military action only highlights the simplicity of Africa’s relationship with China, a power which would not and probably could not make such an intervention.

American culture is still an undisputed foreign force in Africa. From Oprah Winfrey to Coca-Cola, Beyonce to NFL, American brands and African-American personalities are known, perhaps even idolized across this continent. The kids of downtown Nairobi aspire to dress like youngsters from downtown New York, not Nanjing. But does it really matter whether American artistes dominate the African music charts when influence is spreading east in the places where it really counts?

Many Africans feel an affinity with Americans, but the Chinese haven’t bothered trying to win the hearts of minds of ordinary people around the continent. It is not the multi-faceted power in Africa that the US is, but it doesn’t want to be and doesn’t need to be.

With an African-American president, the United States has the perfect spokesman for its African intentions. He is an icon — his image adorns T-shirts and posters around the continent. But many African leaders have been disappointed by his tenure in the White House.

And although they like the president and his story, the Chinese experience has shown convinced most African governments that they need to be pragmatic. When they choose between China and the United States, they are more likely to base their decisions on economic value rather than politics, race or culture.