Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


China faces reality in Africa
Ushio - March 2007

Last year, one of the most widely cited concerns about the rise of China was the fact that it seemed to be “taking over” Africa and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. It was a widespread concern mainly because it was a new discovery: old issues, such as China’s huge and growing trade surplus, or its human rights abuses, or its threat to Taiwan, were all too familiar to be exciting.

            But the arrival in Beijing last November of the heads of government of dozens of African countries, assembling there for the first summit meeting of these exporters of natural resources with their new best customer and supposed friend, inevitably caught the eye. It was colourful, it offered a great chance for African leaders to make rude remarks about their former colonial masters from the West, and it offered a fine signal that China was becoming a true world power, not just an Asian regional power. This was followed in early February by a tour of eight African countries by China’s president, Hu Jintao.

            Similar feelings were stimulated by the tours of Latin America taken by China’s president, especially when he paid visits to Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan leader who has branded himself as the region’s chief anti-American spokesman, now that Cuba’s Fidel Castro is old and ailing. President Hu is certainly a busy traveller.

            Some of this concern and excitement was fully justified. China’s growing wealth means that a country that until recently was one of the world’s biggest recipients of overseas aid is now emerging as a donor. It is emerging even more rapidly as a big investor, as Chinese companies have plenty of capital and as the country’s needs for oil, copper, tin, iron ore and countless other raw materials grows and grows. Just as Japanese firms became big investors in mines and energy reserves during the 1970s and 1980s, so it is quite natural that Chinese ones should become big investors now, in resource-producers in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

            This development is proving uncomfortable for western-dominated aid and lending institutions such as the World Bank which have been trying to direct their grants and loans at countries that make progress in reducing corruption and improving their systems of government. Such institutions believe, quite correctly, that most aid and cheap loans are wasted or stolen if they go to corrupt and poorly governed countries, so they are trying to avoid such wastage as well as hoping to use their aid as a form of political leverage. China seems to have no such concerns. It is using its aid and lending to buy influence and access to natural resources. So it is attaching no political conditions, and is thus undermining the efforts of the World Bank and other lenders.

            So is China “taking over” Africa from the West? There are three reasons to think it is not. The first is that it is not alone in arriving on the African scene as a new donor and investor: India is doing so too, for the same purposes and to make sure that China does not become too dominant. So there is powerful competition for the favours and friendship of African countries. One of President Hu’s visits during his February tour, in fact, was to the Seychelles islands, where China has no big trade or investment interests. He wasn’t there for the scuba diving: China and India are competing for friendship with the Seychelles so as to be able to gain access to the islands’ harbours for their naval ships.

            The second reason is that China’s involvement in Africa, fairly new though it is, is already provoking a backlash. In Zambia, for instance, there have been protests against Chinese firms investing in and running mines, because it is said that their safety record is poor and that they treat workers badly—worse, in other words, than do western and Japanese multinational companies. Critics accuse them of exploiting Africa as if it were a new colony. And such critics also claim that cheap Chinese imports, of clothes and shoes for example, are undercutting local producers.

            The third reason is related to this second one. It is that China is finding that its increasing investments in and trade with Africa and Latin America are forcing it to rethink its foreign policy as a whole. For most of the past two decades, China’s foreign policy has been deliberately low profile, except in its immediate neighbourhood. It has tried to avoid getting involved in controversial issues, has hid behind the United Nations as supposedly the best way to resolve problems, and has continually reasserted its key foreign policy principle of not interfering in other countries’ sovereignty or domestic issues. In Africa, however, it is being forced to change this whole position.

            Once a country, or a country’s private companies, start to own substantial assets such as mines in other countries, the country’s foreign-policy interests change. It is sometimes tempted to interfere in the host country’s sovereign matters; or it may feel forced to do so, by threats aimed at its assets. That is what is happening to China. It is also now unavoidably in the international public gaze over African issues. The United Nations wants to send a peacekeeping force to Darfur in Sudan, which the Sudanese government is blocking. China says it supports the United Nations. But it also has big investments in Sudan and wants to be friendly with the Sudanese government.

         The result is that thanks to its aid, trade and investments, China is having to face new realities in its foreign policy. Its interests have become more widespread overseas, as has its influence. But this is also exposing China to new pressures and new dilemmas. Over Sudan, China has found itself trapped by the contradictions in its own policies. Increasingly, such difficult choices will force China to change. We all must hope that it will change its foreign policy to become a more responsible global power, helping to solve problems rather than worsening them. Other rising powers have gone through the same learning process in the past. So at least China should be able to study their experience.


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