Dams and Dollars

Jean Young Koo asks what US-China cooperation on the Grand Inga Dam project could mean for the relationship in Africa

Historically, Africa has been a land of opportunities for warring superpowers attempting to secure their political influence and economic profit. Recently, however there seems to have been a shift in the dynamics of African economic development. For the last two decades, the G2 powers—the United States and China—have peacefully maintained their presence on the continent and kept a kind of competitive equilibrium. The launching of the Grand Inga Dam project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, however, has finally given the two powers an opportunity to actually converge their interests and cooperate.


Up until this point, China and the United States have tended to operate in different sectors within the African economy, avoiding direct competition. Yun Sun, a fellow with the East Asian program at the Stimson Center, mentioned that whereas the “American approach is more comprehensive, ranging from economic relations to capacity building, to democratization to peace and stabilization…  China is more interested in economic engagements and has contributed relatively less in other issues in Africa.”

As a long-established power in Africa, the United States has been involved in more extensive efforts to promote democracy and development. USAID currently operates twenty-seven regional missions and has assisted African nations with $8.1 billion of aid in 2012. Economic ties have also been strong; in 2013, American goods and services export to Africa reached $50 billion, a record number and a 40% increase in the last four years. Also, even more recently, President Obama announced his commitment to allow American firms to invest $14 billion in Africa.

The Chinese government, on the other hand, has rather insisted on its “checkbook diplomacy,” frequently offering economic aid and investment to African countries as part of its diplomatic outreach. And China has indeed invested a significant amount in Africa; during the 2006 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Hu Jintao promised a $3 billion loan package and $2 billion of buyer’s credit to Africa. Similarly, in 2012, China offered to double the amount of aid to Africa and established a $5 billion China-Africa Development Fund to provide starting capital for Chinese firms in Africa.

To many in the international community, however, the two nations are perceived to operate in a directly competitive atmosphere. Weiyi Shi, a PhD candidate at University of California, San Diego, notes, “In spite of greater economic cooperation, the US and China are… perceived and perceive themselves as strategic competitors on the continent.” China did just surpass the United States and became the continent’s largest trading partner five years ago. Also, it is widely accepted that the United States-Africa Leaders Summit, held in August of 2014, although officially launched for the improvement of bilateral trade, investment, and security, was actually an effort to assert American preeminence in the region.

With the building of the Grand Inga Dam, the relationship between the two countries may now begin to transform. While it is true that, according to Yun Sun, “the US-China cooperation on the dam [has] yet to materialize and we have not seen concrete plans or information on how it will happen,” if all goes according to plan, this project will be the world’s biggest hydropower initiative. Located in the Congo River within the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Grand Inga Dam, estimated to cost $80 billion USD, is projected to produce a third of electricity used in the entire African continent.

The goal of building the  dam is to fuel the economic development of a number of African nations through a large supply of cheaper renewable energy. South Africa and Democratic Republic of Congo signed a treaty to cooperate on the building of the dam in May 2013, and the DRC is now in the process of selecting developers and investors to lay the foundations of the project.

One notable aspect of the project is that USAID, representing the American government, is willing to directly partner with Chinese firms, including the China International Water and Electric Corp and Sinohydro, to raise $12 billion for the Inga Dam as part of an initiative called “Power Africa.” This unexpected cooperation is projected to be a positive influence on the initiative. Weiyi Shi commented, “When the US and China work alongside one another… it is possible that the US will provide the environmental safeguard and public relations finesse that most Chinese corporations still struggle with these days.”

Yun Sun is hopeful about the development of Sino-American relations through the Grand Inga Dam project, and expects the two nations to “grow mature and refrain from viewing their interactions as zero-sum. There is a rising interest in both the US and China to discuss the possibilities and prospects for cooperation in Africa. For ideas to translate into actions takes time, but that is the right direction things are evolving towards.”

In Africa, where developmental efforts are crucial, there is plenty of room for cooperation. As Hu Jintao has noted his commitment to African integration process and Obama his plan to “strengthen [African] regional trade and global markets,” the continental integration of Africa with bilateral efforts of United States and China is no longer an unrealistic hope, but a viable prospect.


Jean Young Koo is a sophomore at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact her at jeanyoung.koo@yale.edu.

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of China Hands.

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