PAUL J. MOONEY

Freelance Journalist

YaleGlobal January 3, 2005

 

China's African Safari

BY PAUL MOONEY

Strengthening Ties: Diplomatic missions, such as Chinese President Hu's 2004 visit to Gabon, underscore steadily growing Sino-African relationships 

BEIJING: In the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese engineers were hard at work throughout Africa, constructing stadiums, laying down roads, and building hospitals in the Cold War battle for the hearts and minds of Third World citizens. The politics and revolutionary idealism behind many of these good-will projects faded in the eighties after Beijing became preoccupied with building socialism with Chinese characteristics back home. However, a fast-growing China with a voracious appetite for resources and markets is now back with a vengeance, and it's shaking up Africa's European and American partners. 

Almost every African country today bears examples of China's emerging presence, from oil fields in the east, to farms in the south, and mines in the center of the continent. According to a recent Reuters report, Chinese-run farms in Zambia supply the vegetables sold in Lusaka's street markets, and Chinese companies - in addition to launching Nigerian satellites - have a virtual monopoly on the construction business in Botswana. 

Between 2002 and 2003, two-way trade climbed 50 percent to US$18.5 billion - the fastest growth China has seen with any geographical area. And trade is tipped to further soar to US$30 billion by 2006. 

The last year has seen revolving door visits by officials of the two sides, and China and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) jointly established the China-Africa Business Council in November. The organization will support China's private sector in promoting business in Cameroon, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania. 

China's rampant economic expansion - and resulting appetite for raw materials - is the major factor driving the country's long march across the African continent. The second biggest consumer of oil after the United States, China is searching the world for new sources of energy, and Africa is fast becoming an important supplier. To date, China has oil partnerships in Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Angola and Gabon, and is exploring a potential collaboration in Kenya. 

Beijing has pressed history to promote its economic agenda, attempting to win African sympathy by emphasizing the common history of exploitation China and African nations have suffered at the hands of Western colonialists. This is a common theme in the pages of African newspapers, where commentators argue that Western investors exploit Africa, while Chinese companies tend to invest in businesses that are beneficial. 

China is also making an effort to win the hearts and minds of the African people, and to extend its political influence. 

Still, there is some debate among Africans over whether China is exploiting or benefiting their continent. Chinese are busy developing much-needed African infrastructure: roads and rail lines in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Rwanda; a new hospital in Sudan; a farm and a bridge across the Nile; reclaiming thousands of hectares of farmland in Tanzania. But at what cost? 

Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, wrote recently in AllAfrica.com that China "is both a tantalizing opportunity and a terrifying threat to South Africa." On the one hand, he said that China was "just the tonic" that mineral-rich but economically-ailing South Africa needs. But he added that exports from China and Hong Kong to his country are double those from Africa and almost double what South Africa exports to China. He called the trade relations between South Africa and China "a replay of the old story of South Africa's trade with Europe." 

Said Mbeki: "We sell them raw materials and they sell us manufactured goods with a predictable result - an unfavorable trade balance against South Africa." 

He went on to say that most of what Europe and America sells to South Africa are high tech goods that the latter does not produce itself, while imports from emerging Asian countries like China are goods his country is able to produce itself. In September, one of South Africa's largest trade unions threatened to boycott retailers it said were importing cheap Chinese products, which it said had lead to worsening unemployment at home. 

In the meantime, however, many African nations are pleased that no political strings are attached to China's friendship - with the obvious exception that they must not recognize Taiwan and must affirm the one China policy. At present, only 7 African nations have relations with Taiwan - one-quarter of the total - and a key part of China's Africa policy is denying Taiwan any greater diplomatic space on the continent. 

He Wenping, director of the African Studies Section at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, says that China and Africa share the view that countries should not meddle in each other's affairs. "We don't believe that human rights should stand above sovereignty," says He. "We have a different view on this, and African countries share our view." 

Zimbabwe is a case in point. After Americans and Europeans withdrew from the country due to the government's destructive land reform program and poor human rights record, China stepped in, ready to work with the embattled, and resource-rich, African nation. 

During his recent trip to Africa, Wu Bangguo, chairman of China's legislature, spent four days in Zimbabwe, leading a delegation of 100 Chinese businessmen who inked joint venture deals in mining, transportation, communications and power generation. It's no wonder that Emmerson Mnangagwa, speaker of Parliament, is so bullish on China. The official gushed in a state-run Zimbabwean newspaper: "With all-weather friends like the People's Republic of China... Zimbabwe will never walk alone." 

Sudan is another example. China National Petroleum Corporation won an oil exploitation bid there in 1995, and when Washington cut ties two years later, the Chinese were ready to fill the void left by retreating Western oil companies. They helped to develop oil fields, built refineries, and laid two oil pipelines. Sudan, which was an oil importer before the Chinese arrived, now earns some US$2 billion in oil exports each year, half of which goes to China, accounting for 5 percent of the country's total imports. China owns a 40 percent stake in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, the major consortium drilling in Sudan. 

But more important for Sudan is Beijing's political support. China has vowed to veto any sanctions imposed against Sudan. When the UN Security Council tabled a resolution in September to punish Sudan for failing to stop atrocities in the troubled western region of Darfur, it was forced to water down the proposal to avoid a Chinese veto. China, Russia, Pakistan and Algeria all abstained in the vote for the weaker resolution that passed by 11-0. 

The political scientist He Wenping concedes that China would suffer if sanctions were applied against Sudan, but she says that this is not China's main consideration. "Suppose this happened in another country," she argues. "China would still take the same stand. You can see this from other examples." 

Still, international pressure is growing for China to use its political influence to pressure Sudan, which critics say is using its oil dollars to fund the military actions against its black African population in Darfur. Some observers say that China, which relishes its relatively new position as an international mover, will not want to be seen as an obstacle to the solution of the problem in Sudan. 

The problem is that while China predicts that the growth of oil consumption will slow sharply next year from the 20 percent rise in 2004, the country still faces continued power shortages. Crude oil imports could hit 150 million tons in 2005, up from 130 million tons this year. Already more than 40 percent of the country's total crude demand is met by imports, and analysts say imports will account for between 50 to 75 percent of its consumption by 2020. 

If sanctions were to block oil from Iran and Sudan, China would be forced to scramble to find other sources, which could be problematic. The question is whether or not Beijing is willing to sacrifice oil and its African partnerships to salvage its international image as a responsible global force.