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Beijing’s winning strategy in Africa

That China’s rise in Africa amounts to neo-colonialism and is resented by Africans is a notion existing primarily in the minds of Western analysts, as educator and author Brendan P. O’Reilly aptly points out. There are stark differences between Beijing’s and Washington’s foreign policies, and nowhere are these more obvious than in Africa: China’s interests are purely economic, while the U.S. remains obsessed with military dominance. In short, while the U.S. bombs and weaponizes, China is pursuing cooperation based on mutual benefits.

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Chinese President Hu Jintao and Arican leaders walk to attend the opening ceremony of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing, July 19, 2012.
Photo: Xinhua

Contention between China and the United States is extending far beyond the current hot spot of the South China Sea. As China’s economy continues its rapid expansion, a truly global realignment of power is taking place. Regions that were dominated by the West for centuries are now coming into China’s orbit, challenging America’s position at the top on a once-unipolar world.

This trend is particularly evident in Africa. The United States is now seeking to counter China’s economic and political inroads in the African continent. The Africa policies of both the US and China are important not only in their own right, but also because these policies serve to indicate the significant differences in these two powers’ general foreign strategies and world views.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been quick to question China’s relationship with Africa, and highlight the purported difference in Africa policy between the US and China. During her visit to Senegal (the first stop of her African tour), she promoted "a model of sustainable partnership that adds value, rather than extracts it". She went on to promise: "America will stand up for democracy and universal human rights even when it might be easier to look the other way and keep the resources flowing." [1]

These comments have been widely understood as thinly disguised swipes at Chinese efforts in the region. Chinese state media reacted swiftly, saying Clinton’s words constituted "cheap shots". An editorial from the official Xinhua news agency, titled "US plot to sow discord between China, Africa is doomed to fail" stated:

"China’s booming economic relations with Africa have stemmed both from their time-honored friendship and complementary needs of development. Its genuine respect of and support for African countries’ development paths are lauded and welcomed across the continent. The friendly and mutually beneficial interaction between China and Africa gives the lie to Clinton’s insinuation." [2]

One must sift through the propaganda on both sides to arrive at an objective truth behind the motives of the US and China in Africa. Both act in Africa to promote the perceived self-interest of their respective nations. While the US speaks of human rights and democracy, counterterrorism and security are at the top of its agenda. Meanwhile, China’s "friendly interaction" with African states has an almost entirely economic purpose.

The raw numbers reveal China’s massive economic impact in Africa. Trade between Africa and China has more than trebled since 2006, passing US$166 billion last year. [3]

The majority of this figure comes from Africa’s $93 billion of exports to China - most of which is raw materials, especially petroleum and copper. African imports from China consist largely of consumer and electronic goods. According to Beijing, the past decade has seen $15 billion worth of Chinese commercial investment in Africa. In 2009 China overtook the United States to become Africa’s No 1 trading partner.

However, China’s footprint in Africa extends far beyond the bustling trade in natural resources and manufactured goods. Last month, at the Fifth Forum on Africa-China Cooperation, China promised to lend African governments $20 billion. This figure has consistently doubled at the last three forums - in 2006 $5 billion was pledged, and in 2009 $10 billion in loans were agreed upon. Inter-government ties between Africa and China were further solidified by China’s building of the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa free of charge.

The Chinese government clearly expects dividends on its massive investment in the African continent. Many of the loans to Africa are focused on infrastructure. New roads, railways and ports, while obviously useful to the Africans themselves, will help facilitate the export of natural resources to China.

China’s role in Africa reveals a singular economic focus. Beijing’s emphasis on economic growth and increasing trade ties with other nations is the defining point of its foreign policy - not only in Africa, but also around the world. The current leadership earns its legitimacy largely on the capability to provide an improved standard of living to its citizens, and much of China’s ongoing economic miracle is based on wealth created through international trade. Its dealings with various unsavory regimes in Africa are not a purposeful affront to Western sensibilities, but are rather based purely on economic self-interest.

Meanwhile, Western critiques of China’s impact in Africa often overlook the opinions of Africans themselves. Undoubtedly, there are some concerns in Africa with China’s increasing presence. At the fifth Forum on Africa-China Cooperation, South African President Jacob Zuma expressed mild reservations with Sino-African relations:

"Africa’s commitment to China’s development has been demonstrated by supply of raw materials, other products and technology transfer ... This trade pattern is unsustainable in the long term. Africa’s past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies." [4]

Zuma’s misgivings regarding the pattern of trade represent a common concern among some African leaders. However, this by no means is indicative of a general anti-Chinese attitude throughout the continent.

According to a 2011 BBC World Service Poll, 82% of Nigerians and 77% of Kenyans believed that China’s economic growth had a "positive impact" on their country. [5] These were the highest positive ratings of China’s economic rise of any of the 27 countries polled, excluding China itself. This optimistic attitude was mirrored in Ghana (62%), but markedly less prevalent in Egypt (54%) and South Africa (52%).

Furthermore, the same study found an overwhelming majority of Africans to view China’s trading practices as "fair" - from 88% in Nigeria to 61% in South Africa. According to the same poll, only 5% of Nigerians and 18% of South Africans viewed Chinese trading practices as "unfair".

China’s image problem in Africa resides primarily in the minds of Western observers. Although there are significant concerns about unsustainable trading practices, these concerns do not constitute a continent-wide anti-China sentiment.

Charges of Chinese "neo-imperialism" in Africa are primarily based on a pattern of trade: importing materials and exporting finished goods typical is a formula typical of colonial powers. However, the major defining factor of imperialism - military dominance and use of force - is simply not present in China’s Africa policy. This is not true of China’s prime Western critics, especially the United States of America.

During the past decade of China’s rapidly increasing trade and investment in Africa, the United States was primarily focused on "security" issues in the continent. US involvement in Somalia’s long-standing civil war has been extensive, with numerous casualties from drone strikes targeting Islamist militias. Ethiopian and Ugandan soldiers, backed by American weaponry and intelligence, have intervened in Somalia to counter the Islamists. Furthermore, in 2007, the Pentagon established the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), with military jurisdiction over the entire continent. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s bombing campaign in Libya (which earned China’s disapproval) was strongly backed by US firepower.

The myopic focus of the US on security and counterterrorism gave China an important opportunity to make economic inroads in Africa. Nowhere in the world is the foreign-policy focus of these two nations better contrasted than in the African continent. While the US was busy been bombing and arming, China was buying, selling, building and lending.

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Hillary Clinton speaking at Dakar University in Senegal.
Photograph: Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary Clinton’s criticisms of China’s Africa policy are likely to fall on deaf ears. China’s cold hard cash has proved much more effective at winning friends in the region than America’s military approach.

Furthermore, China by no means has a monopoly on dealing with oppressive regimes to promote self-interest. While championing "human rights" and "democracy", the US has made deals with the authoritarian governments of Ethiopia and Uganda to promote its counterterrorism and security agenda. Daniel Kalinaki of Uganda’s Daily Monitor complains that the US push for good governance is "inconsistent and shifts with its interests". [6]

Both China and the United States have extensive interests in Africa. Where Washington focuses on combating a global jihadist tide (and ostensibly promoting democracy), Beijing sees a rich potential of natural resources and new customers for Chinese goods. Africa serves to highlight the stark contrast of Chinese and US foreign policy. Both nations have been willing to strike deals with unsavory regimes for the sake of self-interest, be it economic (in China’s case) or strategic (America’s).

As the US "pivots" toward Asia, it is only natural that China will seek strategic depth in areas that were once dominated by the US and its European allies. If the US becomes more openly determined to contain China’s rise, the ensuing struggle will be not be confined to the Asia-Pacific region. China’s extensive economic ties with Africa will eventually pay political dividends.

Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online

[1] "Hillary Clinton launches African tour with veiled attack on China", by David Smith, The Guardian, August 1, 2012.

[2] "U.S. plot to sow discord between China, Africa is doomed to fail", Xinhua, August 3, 2012.

[3] "Chart of the week: China steps up the Africa charm offensive", by Andrew Bowman, The Financial Times, July 23, 2012.

[4] "Zuma warns on Africa’s trade ties to China", by Leslie Hood, The Washington Post, July 19, 2012.

[5] "Rising Concern about China’s Increasing Power: Global Poll" (Pdf file), BBC World Service, March 27, 2011.

[6] "China attacks Clinton’s Africa comments", by Katrina Manson, The Financial Times, August 3, 2012.

Brendan P. O’Reilly

China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.

 
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