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China in Africa: The Real Story

China, the US, and Africa: How Many Embassies?

Deborah Brautigam

President Obama with his Kenyan grandmother
The build up of media stories before President Obama's visit to Africa rarely fail to mention "China" as a prominent "complication" in the US-Africa relationship.  But a June 22, 2013 editorial in The Economist, "Late, But Not Empty-Handed" has an embarrassing error that affected its analysis:
American fears that China is taking over Africa are exaggerated. America and its Western allies are still more influential across the board, whereas Chinese knowledge and political engagement remain shallow. America has 51 embassies in Africa to China’s 41, of which many are largely limited to commerce (emphasis added).
There are 54 independent countries in Africa. It doesn't take much research to find out that America has embassies in 50 African countries (and a mission at the African Union). Four of the smaller countries are served by US ambassadors in a neighboring country. But China also has embassies in 50 African countries, not 41. Four countries continue to recognize Taiwan, and host embassies from the "Republic of China" (Taiwan).

As for the statement that many Chinese embassies are "largely limited to commerce," where did this come from? It's like saying that because US aid to Africa is so high, US embassies are largely limited to aid. Chinese embassies have commercial counselors, almost always in a building located separately from the embassy. This leaves the embassy itself free to concentrate on diplomacy and consular affairs -- which is their main role. China's political engagement in Africa has also expanded rapidly, although I agree: it is not close to the level of engagement from the West.