China’s growth: Cause for hope and concern in Africa

While China’s growing trade and investment flows to Africa have sparked a sometimes contentious debate with the US and Europe over who has the continent’s best interests at heart, a closer look at the dynamic developing reveals a political landscape where the rhetoric is rarely in line with the reality, observers say. When a recent World Bank report revealed that trade between Africa, the European Union (EU) and the US is nearly equalled by that between Africa and Asia, a closer look at the numbers brought the picture of China’s involvement in Africa into even starker relief.

African exports to China grew 48% annually between 1999 and 2004, with 10% of all sub-Saharan exports now destined for the Asian behemoth. Likewise, as a whole, over the last five years Asian exports to Africa increased at an annual rate of 18%, higher than that of any other region, including the EU. China’s deepening involvement in Africa has been driven by its domestic demand for the natural resources and raw materials that are needed to support its population of 1.3 billion and a booming economy — the country has the second-largest economy after the US and the world’s largest current account surplus nearly $180 billion.

It is a development that is profoundly — and, many believe, permanently — changing the nature of Africa’s relationship with the former colonial powers of the EU, and re-writing the nature of African realpolitik. “I think it’s going to dramatically change the diplomatic and economic landscape,” says Mamadou Diouf, a noted West African scholar at Columbia University. “In the previous world defined by the Cold War, the pressure was much more ideological, Africa had to align itself ideologically rather than come up with its own agenda. Today they are negotiating between different choices and possibilities.”

The seeming lack of conditionality to China’s aid, such as the absence of any stipulation based on anti-corruption measures, as well as the speed with which it is dispersed have both proved attractive to African governments with varying degrees of accountability and respect for human rights. “China’s zero-condition policy is appealing to a country which doesn’t have very transparent reporting and budgetary mechanisms,” says Katherine Constabile, an Africa analyst with the New York-based Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy. Among the more controversial aspects of China’s involvement in Africa is that of the PetroChina company, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation, which owns a major stake in Sudan’s national oil consortia, and maintains extensive operations there.

To help meet its demand for fuel, China purchased more than half of Sudan’s oil exports in 2006. Critics charge that profits from these sales have enabled the Khartoum government to buy weapons with which to continue its military operations — both directly and by proxy — in the nation’s Darfur region. Some in Africa, though, despite being skeptical of China’s motives, see a certain amount of selective memory in the West’s position.

“Both the US and Western Europe, particularly over the last two decades, have linked their involvement in Africa — whether trade or other — with demands for reform or better governance and a more democratic substance,” says Ayesha Kajee of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. “But elections have come to represent the be all and end all, with very few (African) governments paying more than lip service to them,” Kajee says. “When it comes to the institutions of democracy, and instituting democratic practice in society, the US and Europe haven’t been half as vocal.”

In a June report “From Cairo to Lisbon — The EU-Africa Strategic Partnership”, the European Commission, which serves as the executive body of the EU, called for a reassessment of EU-Africa relations based on “a genuine partnership of equals.”

In an almost musical corollary, though, in late June, China’s state-controlled China Development Bank commenced the first phase, measuring a billion dollars, of its 5-billion-dollar China-Africa Development Fund. Belying China’s supposed carte blanche to its African counterparts, this aid in fact comes with many strings attached, though none, perhaps attractively for some governments, related to human rights or anti-corruption.

The conditions include that the aid’s availability will be restricted solely to investment in Chinese enterprises and projects in Africa, and that 70% of the contracts be set aside for Chinese companies, with the rest going to African businesses, many already working with Chinese enterprises. Despite all the sound and fury, some Africa observers say, what we may be witnessing is the same old networking simply presented in a new wrapping. “By and large, when you look at foreign interest in Africa, it is still directly linked to geo-strategic concerns,” says Human Rights Exchange’s Kajee. — IPS