China’s presence in Africa worries Europe

The new African-Chinese economic and diplomatic partnership, manifested in the pact signed by China and 48 African countries in Beijing this month, is unsettling European leaders and analysts, who continue to see Africa as Europe’s backyard.

French analysts and politicians have been calling attention to China’s growing presence in Africa for many months. In January, Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, diplomatic correspondent for the French daily newspaper Le Monde, said the Chinese expansion in Africa is “indisputable.” According to figures by the French ministry of foreign affairs, African-Chinese trade has grown five-fold since the year 2000, and will reach the record sum of $50 billion in 2006. Similarly, some 800 Chinese enterprises invested more than $5.5 billion in 43 African countries, making China Africa’s third largest economic partner, only behind the US and France. Tuquoi pointed out that Chinese construction workers could now be seen all over Africa, from Angola, Gabon, Mauritania, and Nigeria in the west, through Sudan to Kenya, Rwanda, Mozambique, and Tanzania, in the east. “They are working in all sectors, from public construction works to agriculture, oil, and telecommunications,” Tuquoi said.

European and North American leaders tend to give their African counterparts lessons on democracy, respect for human rights, and governmental transparency — even if such lessons are also exercises in Western hypocrisy. France, for instance, maintains privileged relations with the corrupt regimes of oil-rich Gabon, ruled since 1968 by Omar Bongo, and of Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo). And the US has been wooing African dictators such as Teodoro Obiang and Eduardo dos Santos, who rule oil-rich, poverty-ridden Equatorial Guinea and Angola, respectively, both since 1979.

Chinese leaders prefer to circumvent such sensitive subjects, and focus instead on business, access to natural resources, and international political cooperation, says Pierre Haski, a diplomatic analyst at the French daily newspaper Libération. “China has been knotting firm ties with some of the most controversial regimes in Africa, like Sudan and Zimbabwe,” Haski noted at the end of the summit.

“China sees opportunity where Western leaders see only terror, corruption, refugees, and decay of state institutions,” Denis Tull, an expert on African politics at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, wrote in a paper on Chinese-African relations published last September. “African leaders are happy that their Chinese counterparts are not repeating the Western sermons on human rights, good governance, and transparency,” he pointed out. However, he added, this “generally asymmetrical relationship alongside the support of authoritarian governments at the expense of human rights, make the economic consequences of increased Chinese involvement in Africa mixed at best, while the consequences are bound to prove deleterious.”

But Adama Gaye, an author from Togo says: “So far, African democratic experience has been reduced to changing one corrupt regime for another, be it by electoral means or by civil war. The question is, would it not be better if an autocratic regime would lead our countries on the development path for a while?”— IPS