Why China has become the big international player in Africa

MICHAEL PETROU January 28 2008


Why China has become the big international player in Africa

MICHAEL PETROU January 28 2008


Why China has become the big international player in Africa


N’Djamena, capital of Chad, is an unlikely place to find a Chinese restaurant. The dusty, poverty-stricken city, deep in the heart of the arid Sahel region of Africa, feels a world away from Asia, yet it’s possible to buy egg rolls here. There’s a Chinese-run hotel in the city, too.

N’Djamena, however, is hardly exceptional. Across Africa, Chinese business investments, aid, and military assistance are changing the continent. One African diplomat described it to Maclean’s as an “invasion,” but it is one that has been extremely lucrative for Africa. Chinese trade with the continent totalled more than US$50 billion in 2006. Aid to Africa, which stood at a little more than US$100 million in 1998, grew to almost US$3 billion by 2004. Chinese construction firms build everything from roads to sports stadiums, and some 750,000 Chinese migrants have moved to Africa in the last 10 years. Many come to work on large construction or oil extraction projects. Others are farm workers or small businessmen who open shops and restaurants in local neighbourhoods.

China’s primary motivation for its expansion into Africa is securing oil and other resources to feed its mushrooming economy. In 2003, China surpassed Japan as the second-largest oil consumer, behind only the

United States. Its share of the total growth in global demand for oil over the last four years is at least 40 per cent. Approximately one-third of China’s petroleum imports come from Africa. Angola is its top supplier, surpassing Saudi Arabia in 2006, and the Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea are among China’s 10 largest oil sources.

But Africa is also fertile ground for China to recruit supporters in international diplomacy. First and foremost, China seeks allies who will reject diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, which China views as a breakaway territory. “The one-China principle is the political foundation for the establishment of China’s relations with African countries and regional organizations,” reads a 2006 Chinese government policy paper. According to Joshua Eisenman, a fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council think tank and the co-author of a forthcoming book on China-Africa relations, this is the “master belief” that guides China’s involvement on the continent.

As a veto-holding member of the United Nations Security Council, China can bring much pressure to bear against African nations that choose to recognize Taiwan. In 2003, Liberia, which needed Chinese support for a UN peacekeeping mission in the country, reopened diplomatic relations with Beijing and expelled Taiwan. There have also been persistent rumours and unconfirmed allegations that China covertly supported rebels in Chad as a way to pressure the Chadian government to reject Taiwan and resume dip-

lomatic relations with Beijing—something Chad did in 2006.

China also expects its African friends to protect its interests in international bodies such as the United Nations. “The United Nations Human Rights Council is a place where China needs protection, because China has its own human rights problems,” says Joshua Kurlantzick, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World. “China is beginning to realize that if you’re going to be a major player on the world stage, you need allies in any major forum. Africa is a lot of nations. You can rack up a lot of friends and allies.”

In return, China’s government and businesses are willing to provide African leaders with pretty much whatever they want—be it cash, construction, or, in the case of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, fighter jets and, reportedly, roof tiles for his 25-bedroom mansion. Beijing will also reciprocate diplomatic support for even its most compromised African partners. “For the longest time, China was the most effective shield the Bashir regime had in Sudan,” says J. Peter Pham, director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, referring to Omar alBashir, Sudan’s president and dictator.

Unlike Western governments and financial institutions, the Chinese have a reputation for not being overly concerned about how the money they invest or spend in Africa is used, and they make few demands

of their aid recipients, beyond supporting China and shunning Taiwan. Beijing, in its 2006 policy paper, described its philosophy as one of “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.” It’s an attitude that’s welcome in much of Africa, where leaders are tired of being dictated to by Western governments and institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. “The Chinese work everywhere. They don’t make speeches,” Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said recently.

In Europe and North America, governments and businesses were slow to realize how quickly and how deeply China was expanding into Africa. Now—like a once-complacent suitor beginning to panic—they are striving to make up for lost time. In December, African and European leaders met at a summit in Lisbon that was billed as the dawn of a new relationship. But some of the Africans sounded ready to move on to other partners. “Today, it seems clear Europe has nearly lost the battle of competition in Africa,” Senegal’s Wade said. L’Observateur Paalga newspaper in Burkina Faso wrote: “The Europeans are facing facts: other powers are quietly setting up shop in Africa and treading on their economic patch.” The paper noted especially the influence of Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

What’s at stake, however, is more than a share of Africa’s natural resources. Western countries also crave political influence on a continent that is rife with conflict and poor governance, and that is emerging as a key battleground in the struggle against Islamist extremism. But Western influence is undermined by China’s no-strings attached aid and trade policies.

“Beijing’s willingness to divorce political

conditionality from economic engagements throws a lifeline to odious regimes that might have otherwise collapsed under Western pressure,” Pham wrote in a recent essay, citing Zimbabwe as a prime example. “The ultimate consequence of this laissez-faire approach is that the leverage of those seeking to promote reforms in Africa has been considerably weakened: too much pressure and they now run the risk that the objects of their attention, especially if they are wellendowed with natural resources, will sim-


ply turn to an alternative partner.”

In the last year or two, China has withdrawn some of its support from Zimbabwe and Sudan, agreeing to support a UN resolution to deploy a United Nations-Affican Union hybrid peacekeeping force in the Darfur region of Sudan, where the Sudanese government and allied militias have killed more than 200,000. “The Chinese started to feel the international pressure and changed somewhat before that,” says Erica Downs, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.

But China’s willingness to co-operate with the West against an African ally might be temporary, cautions Joshua Eisenman, who says that Beijing is desperate to avoid international censure before hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics. “Never underestimate how important it is for the Chinese to pull this sucker off, and pull it off well,” he said.

“If they have to put some pressure on Sudan to ensure that the Mia Farrows of the world don’t come down on them during the Olympic period, they’re going to do just that.” Actress Farrow has vocally criticized China for supporting the Sudanese government.

Eisenman, however, is also optimistic that the United States can still compete with China for influence in Africa, regardless of how much money China is willing to spend there. He describes a concert he attended in the Angolan capital Luanda performed by American hip-hop artists The Game and Omarion. The Angolan fans were enraptured. “There is no such thing as the Chinese equivalent of that in Africa,” he says, “and there won’t be, not in my lifetime. People talk about Chinese soft power, but the desire of people to go to America, and to be American, has no equivalent in the way they view China.” Pham has witnessed the same phenomenon among African government ministers who sign trade deals with China but insist on sending their children to be educated in the United States, Britain, or Canada. “They’re not clamouring to send their kids to Beijing.”

America’s cultural clout on its own, however, will not check China’s ambitions in Africa. There is a new scramble for power and influence on the continent, and China is

determined to win it. If the West doesn’t reconsider what it can offer, in terms of trade deals and investment, its influence will diminish, and hungry residents in African towns will find it even easier to locate restaurants that sell noodles and chicken-fried rice instead of hamburgers. M