JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — As US President Barack Obama heads from South Africa to Tanzania for the last stretch of his most ambitious African tour, he is following a path well trodden by China’s globe-trotting leaders.
Obama’s tour of Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania comes just three months after Chinese President Xi Jinping made a splash by visiting Africa on his first overseas trip.
Unlike China’s leaders, the US president has been slow to arrive and choosy in his countries — he goes only to democracies, and relatively few of them. Prior to this trip, Obama was criticized for spending fewer than 24 hours in sub-Saharan Africa since the start of his first term, despite having relatives in Kenya, his father’s birthplace.
In comparison, the top Chinese officials have visited Africa at a fast and furious rate, signaling the importance placed on ties with the continent.
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Xi toured South Africa, Angola and Botswana in late 2010, when he was still the vice president and China’s presumptive next leader, before returning in March to South Africa, as well as Tanzania and the Republic of Congo.
His predecessor, Hu Jintao, visited 17 African countries in a period of just 10 months. Over Hu’s 10-year term as president, he jetted to countries ranged from big regional players, like South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, to the less obvious, including Mali, Mauritius, Namibia and Cameroon.
J. Stephen Morrison, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Global Health Policy Center, said that China has adjusted its approach to Africa, “to be more consultative and more sensitive to the concerns that they heard on the continent.”
“The level of engagement and contact is at a very high tempo and it’s been that way for some time,” Morrison said in a briefing ahead of Obama’s trip. “So they’ve had to learn and listen very carefully and take the criticisms that have come their way.”
For Obama’s latest visit, the United States appears to have taken a page from China, putting greater emphasis on trade, investment and economic growth than on previous trips.
Obama told a press conference in Pretoria on Saturday that foreign investment and trade in Africa must benefit Africa, noting a “long history” of mineral resources being extracted and profits going abroad.
“I do think it’s important for Africans to make sure these interactions are good for Africa,” he said.
“So if somebody is building a road here in Africa, make sure they’re hiring some Africans,” he said later that day at a town hall event in Soweto, in an apparent dig at China. “If there’s going to be manufacturing taking place of raw materials, locate some of those plants here in Africa.”
In 2012, China’s trade with Africa reached $198.5 billion, an increase from $166.3 billion in 2011. The United States, meanwhile, saw trade with Africa decline to $99.6 billion in 2012 from $125.8 billion a year earlier.
Scott Firsing, an international relations lecturer at Monash University’s South Africa campus, said the trade of US goods with sub-Saharan Africa has tripled in the last decade, but that the US is still viewed as “late to the game.”
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“This is because of the speed at which China surpassed America as the continent’s largest trading partner and how fast the gap continues to widen,” he wrote in an analysis for the South African Institute of International Affairs, a non-governmental think-tank based in Johannesburg.
South Africa has said it hopes the US Congress will extend the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a trade agreement due to expire in 2015 and that allows many African exports to enter the US duty free.
Grant Harris, the White House’s senior director for African Affairs, said that while China has pursued economic interests in Africa, the United States has focused on support for democratic institutions and broad-based economic growth, with a particular focus on young people.
“Africa is a new center of global growth, clearly, but today’s challenge is making sure that those gains are expanded and that they’re spread to benefit all of Africa’s people,” Harris said in a briefing.
Harris said the US model of engagement makes for “democratic development on the continent.”
“I think that’s an important point, because this is an emerging region … and given Africa’s emergence, they’ll be making determinations about their own futures and about their own partners,” he said.
Back in Washington, African heads of state visiting the White House are carefully chosen to reinforce American values. In March, Obama hosted a group of African leaders that he said “exemplify the progress that we’re seeing in Africa.”
Obama’s meeting with the leaders of Malawi, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde was focused building strong democracies with transparency and accountability.
China does not discriminate against autocracies. Through its Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, it has hosted a broad spectrum of African heads of state, including 48 leaders at its 2006 summit in Beijing. Among them were leaders of African democracies, as well as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and the late Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia.
Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that with the boom in economic opportunities and resources in Africa, the continent “has become a much more competitive playing field.”
“China has a mixed record in Africa,” Cooke said, noting that it “gets criticized for kind of lack of transparency, bringing its own workers, bringing its own materials, not engaging with the communities around them.”
“And I think the president will want to make that distinction of why the US is a good partner in this regard,” she said.