African Problems…Chinese Solutions?

The fate of Africa has often attracted the attention of the more powerful members of the international community who have over the centuries been irresistibly tempted by its valuable, unique and vast natural resources. From Sudan, with its deep natural oil reserves to invaluable copper in Zambia and precious iron ore in Gabon, Africa is clearly a continent with much to offer. Quietly over the past couple of decades Africa has seen the arrival of Chinese interests on its shores. With China’s growing involvement, interest and influence in Africa now beyond dispute, especially in the past five years or so, the debate raging in the West is about China’s intentions. Is China seeking a modern form of imperialism? Does she have a broader political intention for Africa? Ultimately the vital question is whether China’s introduction into Africa is welcome relief or a dangerous threat to international interests posed by the ever emerging economic superpower.

It is common knowledge that both collectively and individually African nations since independence have suffered from civil conflicts, food shortages, low employment and, at the core of it all, poor governance over many decades. As such many African states and leaders feel they have no choice but to seek further financial aid and support from the developed nations. There is of course a long history of external influences and interests in the continent. The great scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century saw the continent south of the Sahara literally carved up between the Western powers of Britain, France, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Germany who looked to Africa as a source of resources and imperial power. Later in the Cold War years it would become one of the main battle grounds for the USA and USSR who sought to win support and vied for influence with their competing ideologies – showing little regard to the antics of whichever dictators and governments they were supporting. Yet after the continent’s problems continued to mount so the West’s scramble out of this failed, expensive, and war-torn imperial playground began – opening the way for the Chinese to move in.

The Chinese arrival into Africa began as long ago as the 1970s and although its interest in Africa has been discussed only relativity recently it is clear that over the last decade Chinese investment, aid, businesses and diplomats have flooded into most African countries. For example, figures from the World Bank show that in 2005 $800 million in aid money was given to Africa by China. In 2006 China’s loans to the African infrastructure sector reached more than $13 billion. Between 2000 and 2007 trade revenues between Africa and China grew from a substantial $7 billion to a massive $59 billion.

Many see China’s actions as dangerous and unwelcome. Others remain sceptical and suspicious. Resource plunder, environmental dangers, and huge social implications are some of the threats that have been discussed. It is understandable some are wary about the arrival of a non-democratic and suspected human rights abuser in a continent that has suffered for decades from the oppression of corrupt leaders and foreign interests. Yet Africa remains in dire need of a sustained injection of infrastructure investment, and one way of looking at events is that China has come to the rescue.

China becoming the leading influence in Africa may not ideal. Foreign policy being a mere extension of domestic policy suggests that China will neither promote nor reward democratic behaviour in Africa. Indeed, looking at the numerous failed democratic sovereign states currently in Africa I doubt that their attitude will change any time soon. Likewise China’s foreign policy is unlikely to see it emerge as a champion or defender of human rights when their domestic inclination is to rule firmly and, if necessary, with force. This is sub-optimal to put it mildly. It is clearly regrettable that some of the worst leaders of African nations have been the first to turn to China for help. For example, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has long looked to the East and clearly enjoys this new relationship. He was quoted last year as saying “We have turned East, where the sun rises, and given our backs to the West, where the sun sets”. Nonetheless, I feel that we should avoid such idealistic expectations of Chinese involvement in Africa. Ideologically China’s involvement in African may not be preferable but practically it could be both substantial and vital.

In this honest appraisal of China’s motives it is also important to acknowledge that the Chinese are as driven by self interest as Britain was in its empire heyday. There is little wrong with this and there is good reason to suppose that China’s self interests might increasingly have a positive knock on effect for Africa. The World Bank agrees and has stated that China’s investment and involvement has created a ‘rare and significant opportunity for economic growth, job creation and the reduction of poverty on the Sub-Saharan continent’. There are plenty of positive implications for Africa – infrastructure is being built and developed, aid is frequently given without Western commercial ‘incentives’ attached with it, and jobs have been created. Furthermore, sports stadia and government buildings are being constructed at a low cost, and a provision of cheap Chinese chemicals providing a low-cost and effective pharmaceutical industry are being made available. In addition thousands of low priced everyday goods are provided locally even if many of them carry the famous ‘made in China’ slogan.

It is naturally difficult to generalise how the African people have reacted to the introduction of China but amongst the leaders, as you would expect, there has been much joy and optimism. Robert Mugabe’s comments may be completely irreverent to the outside world but when a trusted friend of the West, President Festus Mogae of Botswana explains “China treats us as equals, while the West treats us as former subjects. That is the reality. I prefer the attitude of China to that of the West,” we really should begin to listen and encourage this mutually beneficial relationship.

China’s involvement in Africa is a commercial and political reality. In every nation and every corner of this troubled region China has invested and gained influence. It has won the trust of the leaders and governments of most countries through its offer to develop infrastructure and create long-term jobs in return for natural resources. At the same time it offers African nations the reassurance of respecting state sovereignty through the promise of non-intervention in domestic or cross border affairs. For sure China will not be a champion of human rights in Africa nor will it be an active promoter of democracy. But through offering African nations a mutual, mature, equal relationship rather than the West’s post-colonial guilt offerings or hypercritical targets China may just have opened the door to a long term, profitable and successful relationship. This is the new reality and we should not be afraid of it.

Western commentators, leaders and politicians often state that the West wants China to play a more responsible role in the international arena. Indeed China itself has shown recently through the Beijing Olympics its desire to be accepted and respected on the international stage. By encouraging its role in Africa we may just see China begin to exercise soft power, to be responsible and to play a vital role in solving ongoing conflicts. In short, where the West has failed, and as it now focuses upon domestic travails, we should welcome the Chinese as being well placed and committed to offering Africa some of the solutions it desperately needs.