President Park Geun-hye’s trip to India and Switzerland this month was trumpeted by aides as part of her “sales diplomacy” drive. In the first months after taking office in February last year, Park filled her diplomatic schedule with summit talks with the leaders of major powers with geopolitical influence over the Korean Peninsula. Since then, she has focused her diplomatic efforts on boosting economic ties and business interests abroad.
With Korea struggling to sustain economic growth in the face of many external and internal challenges, it seems that Park will have to continue strengthening such endeavors. This year, her diplomatic timetable needs to include a trip to Africa, a continent which has emerged as the last growth engine of the world economy.
It is understandable that she failed to set aside time to travel to the continent during her first year in office. But her administration appears to have lacked previous governments’ eagerness to get closer to this resource-rich region with a growing population and market.
It is time to strengthen efforts to expand cooperation with African states, so as not to miss potential opportunities on this increasingly dynamic continent. The Park administration should consider why the world’s three largest economies ― the U.S., China and Japan ― have recently been scrambling to expand their presence in Africa.
U.S. President Barack Obama plans to invite 47 African leaders to a summit with him in August in a bid to widen trade, development and security ties. The landmark summit, together with his trip to Africa last year and a promised future visit, may help strengthen U.S. ties with the continent. African nations have long felt they have received insufficient attention from Washington.
In mid-January, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited three African countries in an effort to enhance business interests and diplomatic relations. He was the first Japanese prime minister to spend time on the continent in eight years. In June, Tokyo held a forum with 51 African leaders, pledging to step up economic cooperation and offering $14 billion in assistance over five years.
The renewed pushes by the U.S. and Japan, long-time aid donors to Africa, come in response to China’s growing presence on the continent. China is pouring huge amounts into Africa to fund projects that have often been described by critics as extractive and exploitative. The competition among the major economic powers should have a positive effect on Africa, rather than becoming a zero-sum game.
Data from international and regional agencies show that Africa is transforming from a region plagued by colonial legacies, civil wars and autocracies to a continent full of hope for the future.
The overall gross domestic product of African nations has expanded by an annual average of 4.8 percent since 2000, the third-highest rate following Asia and the Middle East. Its population is projected to double to 2 billion by 2050, with the number of its middle class consumers also rising sharply, while other continents are likely to see their populations decline over the coming decades. Africa has more than enough potential to climb out of poverty when its resources and natural conditions are fully developed and put to proper use, coupled with the training of its workforce.
Under these circumstances, what African states will need the most are genuine partnerships with countries which can help with their modernization efforts. Korea may be in the best position to extend such assistance by sharing its own development experiences with African nations. It needs to work out its own specific models for development cooperation tailored to the needs of less developed countries in Africa and the rest of the world.
The Park administration is tasked with launching this endeavor. A visit by Park to Africa would significantly boost Korea’s ties with the continent.