China Casts a Long Shadow Over Africa

Workers in Monrovia, Liberia, prepared Wednesday for a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao—with some wariness that his historic trip could unnerve their traditional ally, the United States. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo / AFP-Getty Images)

Chinese President Hu Jintao begins an extended and much anticipated visit to Africa today. He will be traveling to seven states through Feb. 10. Hu's itinerary includes Cameroon, Liberia, Sudan, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, and Seychelles. And he bears gifts—at last.

China has found a way to spend in excess of its $1 trillion generated from U.S.-China bilateral trade. It has converted this cash into African aid dollars .According to the People's Daily, China brings $5 billion in preferential loans credits and another $5 billion in China-Africa "development funds," which is essentially export credits for Chinese companies to invest in the markets of their poorer trading partners.

As well, China plans to double its foreign aid to Africa by 2009. Therefore, it might be fair to say that China is in the process of displacing (if it has not already displaced) Africa's former colonial powers, which have come together as the European Union. In fact, in many former Marxist-oriented African states—Ghana, for example, which has huge mineral wealth—China seems to be filling the power vacuum left behind when the Soviet Union left the scene after it collapsed in 1990. In that sense, China is more ideologically compatible than the erstwhile European powers.

China's only other serious military, strategic and economic rival on the continent is the United States. Glaringly obvious in all this is America's absence from the scene. In fact, aside from Sudan and Somalia, President George W. Bush is fixated with the Middle East and seems to care little about what is happening in Africa.

America's Loss Is China's Gain

American-style free-trade-driven capitalism is running out of steam and its development model has failed abjectly in Africa. So China, with its own state-controlled version of capitalism, has stepped in. Evidently, Africa's previously and frequently plundered mineral and oil wealth is motivating this most recent visit by a Chinese head of state.

The stopover list includes a bevy of resource-rich places to go shopping: Cameroon, which has been witnessing an oil export boom lately; Liberia,  a not insignificant source of raw material such as rubber and, of course, those shiny "blood diamonds"; Sudan, despite being plagued by civil war, blacklisted by Washington for harboring Al Qaeda sympathizers and prosecuting a "genocidal" campaign in the south, seems to be a source of oil as well for China; Zambia, most naturally, is prized for its copper mines and other minerals, an African delicacy China needs to keep its booming economy on track; and Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa, which aside from their mineral wealth, would enable China to gain a solid foothold over the entire horn of Africa.

The Dark Side of Chinese 'Economic Diplomacy'

Is China rearming the continent by proffering weaponry to an unseemly motley crew of warlords, dictators, and rebel leaders? If so, China is only following in the footsteps of the former colonial powers that ruled over the continent before the cold war's two superpowers came to hold sway there in the latter part of the 20th century.

On the human rights front, China's mixed record, especially concerning Tibet, does not make it an ideal lecturer on the topic. Africa's own dismal history in this regard makes it likely that both sides shall agree to remain silent on the issue. Dealing with regimes and "pariah states," such as Zimbabwe, for instance, could be a tricky matter for Beijing. It cannot afford to be seen as pandering to the whims of despots on the world stage. China's insatiable hunger for the continent's resources, however, leaves little room for lofty moral considerations to interfere with trade and commerce.

China's growing influence may not be wholly negative. It can and will provide technical assistance, as the Soviets did in their heyday, in name of "closer cooperation and mutual friendship," as the old socialist slogans used to say. Whatever the long-term results of the China–Africa hookup, it is apparently driven by mutually beneficial mercantile greed more than anything else.

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