China’s forays into Africa

Accused of supporting corrupt African regimes to facilitate its imports of oil and raw materials from the resource-rich continent, China staged a grand diplomatic forum to defend its dealings with Africa.

Leaders and officials from 48 African countries attended the two-day Beijing summit this week meant to highlight China’s role of benefactor in Africa. Beijing hoped to promote its

development model and foreign policy credo, scoring diplomatic marks as well

as winning trade opportunities. “This is a milestone event in China-Africa history,” Xu Jinghu, director-general of the Department of African Affairs of the Foreign Ministry had told the media ahead of the November 3-5 summit.

While the forum officially celebrated the 50th anniversary of the beginning of

China’s diplomatic ties with the continent, it is the

last six years of booming bilateral trade and intensified cooperation that provide the background for the meeting. Driven by its need for ever-increasing quantities of raw materials China has built a significant presence in Africa, investing about $6.72 billion by the end of last year, and building ports, railways, roads and dams.

It has used soft loans and millions of aid to secure natural resources — oil and precious metals, to feed its fast-growing economy. China imported 38 million tonnes of oil from Africa last year, making up about 30 per cent of the country’s total oil imports.

The bilateral trade has jumped from $10 billion in 2000 to $40 billion last year. But this unbridled expansion has drawn criticism for overlooking human rights abuses in countries like Sudan and has been described by detractors as a wave of “neo-colonialism”. As Sudan’s largest foreign investor and an important oil client, China has tried to block UN efforts to impose sanctions on the regime and halt the violence in the war-torn country.

Securing the presence of so many African leaders at a single event — the first of such magnitude that China has ever hosted — is seen here as a big diplomatic success. The five nations in the 53-strong African Union, which don’t have diplomatic relations with China but maintain ties with Taiwan, had also been invited to send observers.

The meeting aimed at cementing a “tacit understanding” that China has with the 48 African nations to support each other in the United Nations, according to professor Xu Tiebing of China Media University in Beijing. “The backing of these African countries in international areas, and particularly in the UN is of great importance to China,” Xu said.

China claims Taiwan, home to 23 million people, as part of its territory and has vowed to reunite it by force should the island declare formal independence.

In the past five years China has used financial incentives and diplomatic means to persuade Taiwan’s African allies to switch allegiance to Beijing. Since hosting the first China-African summit on cooperation in Beijing in 2000, the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Africa has decreased from eight to five.

Those five are Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Malawi, Gambia and Sao Tome and Principe. “Because of its growing international clout China is emerging as the winner in this battle of interests,” said He Wenping, an African export at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. — IPS