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China and Africa

November 3, 2006


During the Cold War, Africa became a surrogate battleground for the U.S. and Soviet Union. Arms flooded the Dark Continent and civil conflicts were the norm. Many of those weapons continue to plague Africa and foment insecurity. Africa sits on the cusp of a new era. Whether the road Africa is about to travel leads to peace and prosperity or is a u-turn that plummets the continent back into conflict and crisis depends on whether China and America decide to cooperate or compete. It is no secret that China has been courting African nations in order to get access to their resources. While the West also needs some of those resources, economic competition will be a lot better for Africa than was the Cold War’s ideological competition. The fear, of course, is that economic competition could lead to conflict as ruthless and greedy leaders seek to line their own pockets rather than invest in the infrastructures of their countries. It is in the best interests of both China and the U.S. to encourage good governance, free markets, and stability. If they work together to achieve these ends, the resulting win-win situation would good for everyone.

African leaders are well aware that China needs their resources and has a swelling foreign cash reserve that can be used to acquire them. That is why they are flocking to a China-Africa Forum in Beijing being held this week. Writing for the New York Times, Joseph Kahn reports that “48 of the 53 African countries, including 40 heads of state, are to arrive this weekend for [the] huge diplomatic event.” [“China Courts Africa, Angling for Strategic Gains,” 3 Nov 2006]

The official purposes of the three-day event are to expand trade, to allow China to secure the oil and ore it needs for its booming economy and to offer aid to help African nations improve roads, railways and schools. The unofficial purpose is to redraw the world’s strategic map by forming tighter political ties between China, which has the world’s fastest-growing major economy, and Africa, a continent whose leaders often complain about being neglected by the United States and Europe. “African leaders see China as a new kind of global partner that has lots of money but treats them as equals,” said Wenran Jiang, a political scientist at the University of Alberta who has studied Chinese-African ties. “Chinese leaders see Africa, in a strategic sense, as up for grabs.”

Kahn notes that the West has expressed some reservations about China’s intentions and the fact they will likely skirt agreed upon rule sets for providing development money.

China’s enthusiasm for Africa has raised concerns among many in the West while the United States is distracted by its efforts to curb terrorism, and France, Britain and other former colonial powers exert less influence in Africa than they once did. China does not follow the international lending standards intended to fight corruption in the region. It has embraced the leaders of Sudan and Zimbabwe, two countries that are under heavy pressure to improve their poor human rights records. Major oil companies have complained that China uses its influence to secure business opportunities for its state-owned companies. Chinese officials say those concerns are overblown or hypocritical, and they deny that they have a grand scheme to create an exclusive sphere of influence in Africa. But China has nearly $1 trillion in foreign currency reserves, boundless entrepreneurial energy and a strong drive to compete there on its own terms.

Chinese leaders are neither stupid nor irrational. They understand that their efforts will only be undermined if corruption remains unchecked. And the infrastructure that African leaders want developed will only advance their economies if constructed to accepted international standards. All of this means that China and the West should agree upon a Development-in-a-Box™ approach. Since the approach relies on cooperation, not coercion, it is an approach to which China could sign-up. On the other hand, because it is standards-based, it is an approach that should be embraced by the West. Both China and the West want to get the best bang for the buck and working at cross purposes neither helps their cause nor African nations.

China’s economic goal is to secure Africa’s abundant supplies of oil, iron ore, copper and cotton at the lowest possible prices, analysts say. Chinese companies view Africa as an open market, neglected by Western multinationals, that they can cultivate with their trademark low-priced goods. But if the goal is mostly mercenary, not unlike European objectives in Africa 150 years ago, the method is avowedly anti-imperialist. The forum’s slogan — “Peace, Friendship, Cooperation, Development” — underscores China’s pledge not to discriminate or intervene. It even invited the five African countries — Burkina Faso, Malawi, Gambia, Swaziland and São Tomé and Príncipe — that still extend diplomatic recognition to its rival Taiwan, though none agreed to attend. In the long term, Chinese officials say they hope not only that the overture will give their companies an edge in the competition for resources, but also that it will give their diplomats an advantage at the United Nations and other international organizations, where African countries can constitute a powerful voting bloc.

Once it’s heavily invested in Africa, China may have a difficult time with its non-intervention pledge. Security and stability are necessary for development and for ensuring a reliable supply of the resources they seek. This should come as good news for the West, which has shown a marked reluctance to intervene in Africa. Cooperating in peacekeeping missions could not only help stabilize the continent it could help strengthen security relationships between China and the West. The China-Africa Forum, while mostly expected to produce a lot of pomp and propaganda, may result in some tangible outcomes according to Kahn.

Chinese diplomats hint that by the end of the meeting they will unveil a variety of trade and aid concessions. These may include a list of African goods that can enter China tariff-free, increases in aid and technical cooperation and debt forgiveness. China’s trade with Africa is growing faster than with any other region except the Middle East, increasing tenfold in the past decade, to just shy of $40 billion last year. China buys timber from the Congo Republic, iron ore from South Africa and cobalt and copper from Zambia. An estimated 80,000 Chinese expatriates live in Africa, selling shoes, televisions and everything else the world’s factory produces. More vitally, Africa has helped quench China’s growing thirst for oil. Angola, which China cultivated assiduously in recent years, has edged out Saudi Arabia as China’s largest foreign source of oil.

While China’s generosity may be welcomed in Africa, its current pattern of extracting resources, turning them into manufactured goods, and then selling them in Africa is a pattern that will eventually cause resentment if not animosity. That is why embracing a Development-in-a-Box approach is so important. That approach focuses on establishing sustainable economic sectors as well as the conditions necessary to attract foreign direct investment, not just foreign products. China is just starting to test it muscles and once it feels comfortable in its new role it will find that cooperation will not only be more effective, but essential, to its own interests.

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