U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would have been just fine if he had cut his 27-minute speech a bit short on March 6 at George Mason University before embarking on a five-nation trip to Africa.
Instead, he chose to fault China for its activities in Africa, saying they encouraged 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 U.S. 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. "I think the Africans are mature enough to engage in partnerships of their own volition which will be useful for the country — for the countries and the continent," said African Union Chairman Moussa Faki in response to Tillerson's criticism at a joint press conference on Thursday.
Djibouti's Foreign Minister Ali Youssouf dismissed the hype of his country's debt to China, saying it "is so far manageable" and "let me first underline the fact that no country can develop itself without having a strong infrastructure. And China is, from that perspective, a very good partner."
In fact, when Tillerson landed in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, last Wednesday on the first leg of his trip, he might have been surprised to see a modern light rail system that was built by China Railway Group Ltd and began operation in 2015, a year after I made a reporting tour to the up and coming African nation.
He might also have been struck by a 759-km modern railway linking Addis to 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 U.S. sees a bright future in Africa, I thought he meant China, not only because I wrote about Chinese optimism in Africa, but the BBC also reported last week 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 have toured the Eastern Industrial Zone in Dukem just outside Addis where Chinese companies are contributing to the local industrial modernization, training workers and creating tens of thousands of jobs. It would instantly invalidate all of Tillerson's accusations about China.
David Dollar, a former U.S. 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 African and Latin American countries.
Douglas Paal, director of the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, just returned from a fact-finding trip in Africa. In a talk at the Brookings Institution last Wednesday, he praised China's economic activity there and said the countries welcomed it.
Paal, an expert on China who served in the George H. W. Bush administration, called Tillerson's speech on Tuesday "terrible", "an impoverished speech conceptually and counterproductive tactically" and "setting American policy in the wrong direction".
Deborah Brautigam, director of the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, was quoted by CNN on Saturday saying that Tillerson sounds very much like Secretary Clinton.
"He's making some of the same basic errors in terms of analyzing what China is doing in Africa," Brautigam said, adding that accusing Chinese investment of creating few jobs "doesn't accurately reflect the situation in many countries".
Tillerson's speech may aim to distract African nations from anger at U.S. President Donald Trump who allegedly 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 U.S.-Africa trade.
The fact that Tillerson is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Africa 14 months after the Trump administration took office proves its lack of interest in the continent. The current State Department so far still has not filled the vacancy of assistant secretary for African affairs.
The U.S. has also been cutting its USAID programs in Africa and its contribution to UN peacekeeping, much of which is conducted in Africa.
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 the U.S., instead of nitpicking about China, could join hands with China in tapping the huge growth potential of the continent.