US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who was ousted by President Donald Trump on Tuesday, paid his first official visit to Africa recently - a move viewed as a way of building bridges two months after Trump used foul language to describe African countries.
In a speech before his departure, Tillerson slammed China's approach in Africa, saying it encouraged dependency, utilized corrupt deals and endangered Africa's natural resources. His key message was that unlike China, the US is a true friend of Africa - a rhetoric that sounds all the more hollow looking at the US presence in the continent.
Ahead of Tillerson's visit, some observers commented that China had smartly outplayed and marginalized the US in Africa. But this is not completely true as the continent never garnered much attention from the US. Long before the days of "America First," Africa had been relatively neglected by the US. Barack Obama's presidency was an even bigger disappointment: Despite the president's Kenyan ancestry, Obama's foreign policy was marked by his historical Asian pivot.
The amount of funds dedicated to Africa has been declining in recent years, especially compared to the countries that are on top of the list receiving US aid (Afghanistan, Israel and Iraq). In 2016, Jordan (population of 9.5 million), an "upper-middle level" country, received more funds than Ethiopia, most of whose 100 million population lives in poverty.
It is even worse for trade: In 1960, the whole continent only took 4 percent of US exports and supplied only 3.7 percent of American imports. Currently, approximately 1.5 percent of US exports go to sub-Saharan Africa despite the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) that offers African participants preferential access to US markets by eliminating import tariffs.
Meanwhile, China's bilateral trade with Africa increased 21 times between 2000 and 2014. Beijing has diversified its business interests on the continent by participating in energy, mining and telecommunications industries and financed the construction of roads, railways, ports, airports, hospitals and schools - key areas for the long-term development of African countries.
The US has often boasted that its objectives in Africa - strengthening democratic institutions, advancing peace and security - were morally superior to China's. But these commitments have been strongly influenced by national security interests and in particular by the fight against international terrorism and Islamic radicalization, at the expense of other key sectors.
Democracy assistance has been continuously dropping since 2011. About 90 percent of exports from Africa to the US under AGOA are petroleum products - even though one of the most frequent criticisms of China is that it is only interested in Africa's natural resources.
Moreover, US development aid has been known for using tied aid that forces recipient nations to spend it on products from the donor nation. This type of aid is known reducing its value by as much as 30 percent and has the tendency to make donors focus more on the commercial advancement of their nations than what developing countries need.
This is why Tillerson's announcement of a $533 million humanitarian African aid plan and commitment that the US would do more to reduce trade and investment barriers for African partners is unlikely to change anything in the relationship between the US and Africa, especially as Trump has repeatedly spoken of making sweeping cuts to American contributions to peacekeeping and aid operations.
For decades, too few Western corporations have invested in Africa, leaving room for countries such as China, India and Turkey to move in. This has caused a major shift in African outlook, clearly expressed by African Union Commission Chair Moussa Faki, who said during his briefing with Tillerson that "Africans are mature enough to engage in partnerships of their own volition. There is no monopoly, we have multifaceted, multifarious relations with parts of the world." Opinion surveys have shown that majority of respondents in African countries view China favorably.
In addition to investment, this outlook is the result of China's diplomatic efforts in Africa. Over the past 10 years, Chinese leaders have made 79 official visits to 43 African countries. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visits the continent every year. By contrast, Trump does not seem to be planning to visit Africa, and Tillerson is the most senior official of the Trump administration to visit the continent.
It is, therefore, wrong to say that China marginalized the US in Africa. The US' reduced engagement only became more noticeable as Chinese presence increased. China and the US' interests in the region are not mutually exclusive. They can work together in improving lives on the continent.