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Tillerson Addresses China's Growing Investment In Africa


If Secretary Tillerson's trip to Africa is about mending and strengthening relations between the U.S. and African countries, it's also about countering China's growing interest on the continent. For years now, China has been investing across Africa in trade and loans. That's put the U.S. on edge.


REX TILLERSON: We are not, in any way, attempting to keep Chinese investment dollars out of Africa. They are badly needed. However, we think it's important that African countries carefully consider the terms of those investments.

MARTIN: That was Secretary Tillerson speaking on Thursday from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. We wanted to understand China's growing influence in the region, so we called Deborah Brautigam. She is the director of the China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking to us.

DEBORAH BRAUTIGAM: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: So would you just set the table for us here? What is the level of Chinese investment in Africa?

BRAUTIGAM: Oh, the Chinese are very large investors in Africa. Their stock of investment right now is about 40 billion dollars, but to put that in perspective, United States has about 58 billion dollars in investment, so we are very large investors in Africa. But U.S. investment has been on the decline, so we're withdrawing from Africa while the Chinese have been increasing.

MARTIN: So let's just back up a bit and talk a little bit about the comment that Secretary Tillerson made in that bite that we just played. What is the secretary talking about? He was clearly expressing some concern about China's footprint in Africa. And why is he taking this on now?

BRAUTIGAM: I think he's taking it on now because - for several reasons. I think one would be his own personal background because he has had direct experience in competing with China. Of course, Secretary Tillerson is the former head of Exxon, and Exxon has assets across Africa. They've got them in Angola, Chad, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, Tanzania and so on. And these are all places where they're competing with China. But I think, obviously, it's also - Secretary Tillerson has gone to Africa to try to counter the image problems that the Trump administration has experienced after President Trump's unfortunate comments about African countries, and it really helps to deflect attention from the problems here in Washington by focusing on China.

MARTIN: Does the State Department, though, have a strategy for how to counter China's influence or to rebalance this?

BRAUTIGAM: I think, under the Obama administration, we began to see a strategy. The Chinese are very involved, as Secretary Tillerson has pointed out, in African infrastructure. The United States, in terms of our government-sponsored engagement with Africa, has been largely about foreign aid. So our aid goes into the health sector, which we're rebuilding. But what we're doing in health is we're helping to keep a lot more people alive, but the Chinese are putting in place the economic infrastructure that can help provide jobs for people.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, do you have any sense of there being continuing repercussions from the president's reported comments about Africa? Do you think that has any lingering - lingering repercussions?

BRAUTIGAM: I think, across the continent, people are very tuned in to the news, and they follow what happens in America. We're a very important country for them. They want America to be strong, and they want America to be a leader, and they want America to be well-governed and to set a good example, and so I think looking back here at home and how we can be a better democracy would do wonders for combating whatever influence we think China has in Africa.

MARTIN: That's Deborah Brautigam. She's the director of the China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BRAUTIGAM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.