China faces reality in Africa

07.02.07 Publication:

This week, China’s President Hu Jintao has set off on a 12-day tour of African and Indian Ocean countries. Why? Because he is touring China’s new foreign assets: its mines, its suppliers of the huge amounts of natural resources it needs to fuel its extraordinary economic growth. Hence the fact that lots of people in the West are worried that China may be “taking over” Africa and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. They shouldn’t be. The truth is likely to be different. Africa is taking over China’s foreign policy—or, at least, it is going to force it to change.

The worries about a Chinese takeover first surfaced last autumn, when the heads of government of dozens of African countries assembled in Beijing for the first summit meeting of these exporters of natural resources with their new best customer and supposed friend. Such a gathering 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. And the Africans seemed to love China, as it is offering them loans and grants with no political conditions attached—unlike those mean Europeans and Americans.

Some of this concern is 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. And its loans and aid are undermining efforts by the World Bank and other western aid institutions to use finance as a tool to encourage better government.

Yet to think that China is thus “taking over” Africa is both too simplistic and misguided, for three reasons. 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. One of President Hu’s visits during his current tour, in fact, is to the Seychelles islands, where China has no big trade or investment interests. He isn’t going 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.

The third reason is related to this second one. It is that China is finding that its increasing exposure in Africa is forcing it to rethink its foreign policy as a whole. For most of the past two decades, China has taken a deliberately low profile, except in East Asia. It has tried to avoid getting involved in controversial issues, has hid behind the United Nations as the best way to resolve problems, and has continually reasserted its key principle of not interfering in other countries’ sovereignty. 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. It is trapped by its own contradictions. It hasn’t resolved them yet, but will have to eventually.

Welcome to reality, China.