JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The United States is considering partnering with China on improving electricity in Africa and the proposal could be part of bilateral discussions when President Barack Obama visits Beijing next week, two sources involved told Reuters.
The proposal could include $5-$7 billion of commitments to improve electricity generation and transmission in several African countries, one source involved in the initiative said.
“Plans have been discussed and outline ideas drawn up but there are understandably nerves given the delicate relationship with China,” one of the sources said. The source was unable to provide details on specific countries or projects.
The 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, with a combined population of 800 million, produce roughly the same amount of power as Spain, a country of just 46 million.
The shortage imposes a massive burden on economies in the continent, constraining growth and leading to hundreds of millions of people remaining mired in poverty.
U.S. collaboration with China would mark a significant shift in diplomacy between Washington and Beijing after long-running disputes over foreign policy, security, espionage and alleged human rights abuses.
China’s policies in Africa have also been described by some African leaders as “neo-colonial” - lending money to impoverished states to secure natural resources and support state-owned Chinese construction companies.
Obama is due to arrive in Beijing on Monday to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and is expected to meet China’s President Xi Jinping for dinner on Tuesday night and again for more formal talks on Wednesday.
“We are working on a whole variety of outcomes in which the United States and China would be cooperating in very practical and tangible ways, but we’ve got to wait for the President to announce them,” a senior U.S. official told Reuters when asked about Africa power collaboration.
“Everything is under negotiation at this point so I am not going to talk about what’s on the table,” he added.
China’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Obama, America’s first black president whose late father was Kenyan, has made improving electricity in Africa his flagship policy on the continent.
U.S. companies, including General Electric, have pledged around $14 billion for projects as part of his ambitious “Power Africa” program aimed at boosting electricity generation across the continent.
China first approached the United States last year about partnering over the Inga dam project in the Democratic Republic of Congo but the United States was not keen on working on a venture that has suffered long delays and spiraling costs, the sources said.
Large-scale hydropower dam projects also don’t meet with a U.S. focus on renewable energy.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hinted this week that discussions during the APEC conference to conclude a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would involve energy agreements in other parts of the world.
“The TPP is not only a trade agreement but also a strategic opportunity for the United States and other Pacific nations to come together, to bind together,” Kerry said in a speech in Washington on Tuesday.
“Second, powering a clean energy revolution will help us address climate change while simultaneously jump-starting economies around the world,” Kerry added.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Jason Szep in Washington and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Ed Cropley and Toby Chopra