China in Africa – from undercoverage to cliche in under a year?

A year ago, talking with Abe McLaughlin, Christian Science Monitor’s brilliant Africa correspondent, we both mentioned that we thought China’s role in Africa was an important and tragically undercovered story. Since that conversation, the story’s gotten a lot of ink, in part due to Abe’s reporting on the story… and in part because the story is becoming unavoidably huge. After his (diplomatically awkward) trip to the US, President Hu Jintao took an African tour that included Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya – though not Zimbabwe, where Mugabe has been assiduously cultivating Chinese support, or Sudan, where China has systematically blocked UN sanctions against Sudan, supplied the government with weaponry and invested heavily in the oil industry.

As Davide Berretta of Foreign Policy observes, Africa is the sole continent where the majority of the population views American influence in a positive light. BBC poling data offers a bit more insight on this phenomenon – US influence is viewed more positively in the five Anglophone nations listed and more negatively in the two Francophone nations. (Tanzania, a nation where the majority speaks Kiswahili and elites speak English, also polls pro-USA.)

This, to my mind, suggests an explanation slightly more complicated than a purely economic one. While the US periodically threatens to get serious about Africa, then forgets when a leader returns from a state visit, China is making systematic, major infrastructure investments that will have a far more transformative economic impact on the continent than modest packages of US aid. But the US is a dominant cultural exporter – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a corner of the continent where pirated US DVDs aren’t being screened to large, enthusiastic audiences. While the BBC is the most important non-local news source in most Anglophone nations, CNN is widely available and frequently watched. And far more Africans are queueing for American visas to make their forture and send money home than those emigrating to the People’s Republic of China.

Chippla, writing from Nigeria, identifies himself as a Sino-skeptic, but notes that China is making major inroads on the continent:

China is communist but most Africans, I believe, couldn’t give a damn about that. The United States, which trumpets democracy as the only acceptable form of government, has as its third largest trading partner, a communist nation! And history appears to be on the side of China. It never came to the African continent to buy slaves or exploit natural resources with the barrel of a gun, or to carry out atomic tests in the Sahara desert (as shameless France did in the 1960). But China must be aware of the fact that the silencing of opposition within it cannot go on for much longer.

Chippla notes that Nigeria appears to be “up for grabs” – while the US is increasingly dependent on oil from West Africa, the instability of countries like Nigeria appears to be an insumountable obstacle to major investment in the area. This doesn’t appear to be as serious an issue for the Chinese, who are making huge investments in the Nigerian oil sector at the same time that American companies are discovering their vulnerability to shutdowns and other actions in the Niger delta.

How long will the positive view of the USA in African nations last? If the Chinese become a dominant investor on the continent, will we see a shift in African alignment, from the US to China? And will anyone in the US notice before the oil and other natural resources in Africa are spoken for?

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5 Responses to China in Africa – from undercoverage to cliche in under a year?

  1. Pablo says:

    Chapter from a new book with some interesting China-Africa investment: http://www.fondad.org/publications/africaworld/Fondad-AfricaWorld-Chapter16.pdf

    The full book, Africa in the World Economy, is also online: http://www.fondad.org/publications/africaworld/contents.htm#chapters

    China’s official Africa Policy is also online: http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx/t230615.htm

  2. nykrindc says:

    I think you are looking at the story from the wrong perspective…that is, China is coming to Africa, but so is South Korea and India. The reason, all of these East Asian countries need abundant supplies of energy resources to power their burgeoning economies. Further, China is no longer Communist, that is, it is as communist as the earth is flat. China is now a one party state, and it is vociferously capitalistic. The way, the US needs to view China’s entry into Africa, is as Barnett admonishes, as an opportunity to shrink Globalization’s gap. We need to be partners, and understand the reasons behind their actions in the continent and do what we can to help China secure the energy resources it needs to continue its economic growth. Yes, it is true that China has engaged in many a business deal with Sudan and Zimbabwe, but it isn’t as if we haven’t cohorted with many a dictatorship in our lifetime, particularly in the Middle East. We need to be partners in this enterprise, not competitors because the only way to grow globalization’s core is through cooperation between the current Superpower and the emergent one. Rather than see it as a risk or threat, we have to find the opportunity that presents itself.

  3. Ethan says:

    Great comment, Nykrindc – I’m sorry this post reads as sinophobic or anti-China. That’s not my goal… though I’m having some difficulty being as open to a rising China as I was before some of my friends were directly affected by some of that nation’s less transparent security decisions. My goal is to suggest that the US is missing out by failing to engage in Africa. I’m encouraged that Asia, as a whole, is exploring partnerships in Africa, and as I’ve suggested in some of my writing on the next Billion, I think Asian and African partnerships may have a technology transfer advantage over US-African trade. My reason for bringing up the story again and again is the hope that the US will see the value of partnering in Africa now and in the immediate future.

  4. Good post Ethan, somehow I missed it over the past several days. Thanks to Pablo for that tip about the “Africa in the World Economy” publication from Fondad in The Netherlands.

    I’ve been back-and-forth via comments and posts with Chippla and other blog authors over this “China in Africa” phenomena since January and I’ve addressed my own personal guilt trip re: Sino-phobia in my most recent blog post on China.

    I (and many other bloggers) remain very skeptical of the PRC’s recent change of heart toward sub-Saharan Africa and that has been clearly described in posts that I have written and posts that are in the works. The Beijing government is subverting and undermining a great deal of hard work put in by Western donor nations, international institutions i.e. the World Bank and the IMF, and the sacrifices made by many African people themselves who have fought hard to combat corruption, graft, and kleptocracy in their respective countries. Enter the Dragon, all deals are off. No need to change anything, especially work on economic reform, good governance, and fair and responsible distribution of state revenues to projects that directly benefit the citizens of these African countries that China has targeted.

    To dismiss the methods used by the PRC to acquire favorable business contracts and access to oil and mineral resources in some African nations today as harmless would not only be detrimental to our (the U.S.) own strategic initiatives for sub-Saharan Africa, it would be an act of betrayal to Africa itself, irregardless of what some critics and pundits may think of America’s past with sub-Saharan Africa.

    Need an example of what I mean? Clarify Beijing’s Win-Win strategy in the Sudan for me, please! Just how much development aid and economic assistance for the rebuilding of homes and villages and relocation for the millions of IDP’s and refugees from Darfur has the Beijing government committed to the U.N. so far? After all, their (China’s) money, munitions, and military hardware and its voracious appetite for Sudanese oil helped to create and sustain that crisis in Western and Southern Sudan, didn’t it? Non?

    Did you notice that after President Hu Jintao’s whirlwind world tour to the U.S., Africa, and the Middle East___ all of a sudden the regime in Khartoum is ready to accept U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur and ready to sign on the dotted line at Abuja? Somebody got read the Riot Act in the past few weeks, no doubt.

    I would prefer to see an answer to these questions from a top PRC blogger or a government official who supports the new Beijing strategy for Africa, but I doubt if that will ever happen.

    Sorry about the rant Ethan, but this subject just pisses me off, totally.

  5. Glenda says:

    http://www.freshplaza.com/2006/09may/ec2_cn_economy-to-africa.htm
    Here’s an article that points out the very sad side of China’s business in Africa.
    (Unfortunately, the pointer to source link is incorrect.)

    It is not truly “investing” – it is the worst side of “free trade” with no pretenses of responsibility to Africa’s people.

    excerpts:

    “And, unlike many western countries, China promises that its aid and investment comes without pre-conditions requiring promises of good governance, a reduction in corruption, or democratization.”

    “Sanusha Naidu is a research specialist the Human Sciences Research Council in Durban.
    Naidu says, “Last year, a contract awarded to a Chinese consortium, CITIC-ARCE, by Steelmaker Ispat Iskor allowed for several hundred Chinese workers to be brought into South Africa to construct Ispat Iskor’s plant in northern KwaZulu Natal. There are also indications from Sasol, South Africa’s energy company that it would import 2000 qualified artisans mainly from Asia due to domestic shortages in the local economy.

    Now this has raised questions about what is the responsibility of South African companies towards addressing South Africa’s unemployment crisis and skills deficiencies. If they see it is easier to get foreign workers to come in, then there will obviously be a backlash. This is happening not only in South Africa but in other parts of Africa as well.”

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