China pursuing its superpower ambitions in Africa

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At the very time China was engulfed in a trade dispute with the US and the European Union –” centred on the large imbalance between China’s vast exports to those countries and its imports from them –” Beijing has unveiled a programme to multiply its already strong economic ties with African countries, and to establish "strategic links" with them. But despite the fact that China demands political and diplomatic support in return for its economic aid, the large number of African leaders invited to the summit that began in Beijing, the capital of China, on November 3 felt neither the need nor had the strength to bargain with their demanding host. Instead, they concentrated on praising China for its generous economic aid and on highlighting its practice of not setting political conditions for assistance, in direct contrast to US and European donors to Africa. In fact, a succession of those who spoke at the summit said that they want closer commercial ties with China and hope to learn from its two-decade boom to boost their efforts to reduce poverty.

In direct contrast, African business groups complain about poor treatment by Chinese companies and competition from a flood of low-cost imports. African trade unions also complain about China’s practice of sending thousands of Chinese workers to most of the sites of its projects, such as infrastructure building, in the continent. This, they argue, denies African workers the opportunity of being employed at these projects –” not only to earn desperately needed incomes but also to acquire the skills required for development. In fact, this is a serious problem, because there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese living and working across Africa. But none of these problems were addressed by the leaders gathered at the summit.

Instead, many of those leaders heaped praise on China for its generosity, with Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, for instance, calling China his second home and thanking it for helping Africans to achieve independence from their Western rulers, for its economic aid and for not linking aid and investment to human rights or democracy. Not only did those praising their host speak at the summit gathering, but they also gave long interviews to Xinhua, the Chinese state newsagency. It is understandable that rulers like Mugabe, whose countries are under strong UN and Western sanctions, praise Beijing for coming to their rescue, but that rescue could have been more effective had they bargained with China.

When most of the so-called international community imposed economic sanctions on the Mugabe regime, Beijing stepped in, mining for minerals and supplying weapons, fighter jets and a large number of faulty buses, which turned out to be too costly because they broke down regularly. Even the tiles on the roof of Mugabe’s newest presidential palace were shipped from China. But Beijing values the minerals and metals it imports from Zimbabwe to meet the demand for raw materials required by its new status as the world’s fastest-developing country. Its great need for energy has also moved Beijing to defy the UN- and US-imposed sanctions against Sudan. China, which imports 60 percent of Sudan’s oil, also sells arms to Khartoum, including helicopters. Nigeria, Angola, Gabon and the Congo also export oil to the new economic superpower; Angola is its top oil-supplier worldwide. Angola is rewarded for this by the reconstruction of its ravaged roads and railways by thousands of Chinese labourers. But Beijing reaps blame for this effort by campaigners who accuse its companies of ignoring corrupt business practices.

China also values the huge amounts of minerals it imports from Africa.. South Africa exports vast amounts of aluminium, iron and platinum and in return receives the dubious benefit of being flooded with cheap goods and clothing, which greatly annoys the local textiles industry. The vast mineral and metal resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo have also attracted Chinese attention to the extent of persuading it to invest significant amounts of money in the war-torn country.

Clearly, the main benefactor from the trade between the new economic giant and the world’s least-developed continent –” which is also war-ravaged and has the world’s largest number of failed states –” is China. This has led to some resentment in Africa, with some countries complaining about the flood of cheap goods from China that they say is damaging local industry. There has even been unrest over labour standards in Chinese-backed enterprises and companies. In July, for instance, African workers at a Chinese-owned mine in Zambia rioted over low pay. This became an issue in the presidential elections in September, although Zambia has been an ally of China for several years. Opposition candidates questioned the benefit of Chinese investment.

But despite this unrest and the fact that Chinese investment has become an election issue, the African rulers gathered at Beijing avoided raising these issues. One reason is that most of them are dictators and are not bothered by popular resentment or popular concerns. Another equally worrying reason is that they were in Beijing as representatives of their countries, not as representatives of a continent. This meant that they were not in a position to bargain with China collectively. With individual African countries so divided by culture, language, religion and the like, it is unrealistic to expect them to unite at the continental level and bargain collectively. Even the leaders of North African countries –” such as Egypt and Algeria –” where there is little or no division over these types of differences, acted individually please the Chinese.

Presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Abdul-Aziz. Bouteflika of Algeria, for example, tried to show how strongly their countries support and respect China and the Chinese people. The Chinese media took advantage of this and widely publicised their meetings with president Hu Jintao. To their shame, they did not raise, even privately, Beijing’s severe repression of Chinese Muslims, who are not only denied independence and even limited autonomy but are also subjected to persecution on religious grounds (i.e. because they are Muslims). Other Muslim leaders at the summit were also silent on this issue.

Equally reprehensible was the role of the international human-rights groups that criticised China for giving aid to repressive African regimes and accused it of being responsible for aiding the erosion of those rights. Human Rights Watch appealed to the Beijing on November 4 not to give aid to Sudan, while ignoring the oppression of Chinese Muslims. Western countries that criticised China also made no mention of their own destructive role in the continent. The role of Western governments and companies is too well known and well documented to need discussion. Many African leaders are tainted by this and are in no position to resist China’s attempts to bribe them to play a leading role in the economic and political exploitation of the continent.

It is not surprising, therefore, that China has found African leaders easy to manipulate, extracting from them both economic and diplomatic backing for its programmes. One example of Chinese diplomatic support for its foreign policy is the withdrawal of links with Taiwan, which China wants to take over. Beijing wants African governments’ support in the UN for its plan to make Taiwan part of China. There is little doubt that, as a result of its manoeuvres, it will obtain that backing.

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