Deciphering the Sino-Africa saga
By Bright B Simons
ACCRA, Ghana - Analysts looking for grand, coherent patterns in Chinese
President Hu Jintao's first overseas trip in the Year of the Ox are tearing
their hair out in frustration.
There are just too many to choose from and bind together.
It would have been easy to tie it all down to China's recent economic infection
from the global financial contagion. In that scheme of things, one could have
said that Hu's visit to Africa was part of the ongoing effort to diversify
China's export markets away from their fatal dependence on Western profligates.
China's trade with Africa has expanded 1,000% this decade to an astounding
US$100 billion plus, a significant proportion of which is made up of
Africa-bound Chinese consumables.
But look closely and another vortex pops out of the design: the visit to the
four African countries is actually one plank in what seems to be a multi-prong
diplomatic offensive aimed at consolidating some kind of Southern Hemisphere
solidarity in anticipation of an era of mercantilist alliances arrayed to the
effect of greater multilateralism and the breaking of Euro-American economic
Thus while Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is being kept busy at home shoring up
confidence in the southern export machine through staged visits to the
shrinking enclaves of roaring capitalist success on the country's southern
coast, Vice President Xi Jinping has been neck-deep in diplomatic intrigue in
Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia and Jamaica.
At the same time, Vice Premier Hui Liangyu has been asked to ride on China's
recent membership into the Inter-American Development Bank (IABD) to worm his
way into the hearts of Ecuadorian, Argentinean, Barbadian and Bahamian opinion
leaders with assurances of more funds to follow on the $350 million that sealed
China's membership in the IABD.
Hu begun this current African expedition in Saudi Arabia, China's biggest
supplier of oil globally and largest trade partner in the Gulf, before jetting
to the four African countries on his schedule: Senegal, Mali, Tanzania and
Mauritius, which for the more imaginative analysts provide another bolt in the
theory that in China's strategic perspective, somewhat similar to the marketing
approach of some Western multinationals, Africa and the Middle East are fused
(ponder the unease of some China-skeptic Indian strategists at the inclusion of
the Indian Ocean state of Mauritius).
Having painted this elegant portrait of the African visits as embedded in an
overarching Chinese framework of geostrategic positioning, encompassing Africa,
the Middle East and Latin America, gleeful observers are naturally inclined to
dismiss the more mundane spin put on the issue by Chinese diplomats. The
Chinese ambassador in Senegal, to name one such spin doctor, was almost frantic
in his apologies: none of the four African countries is resource-rich,
therefore the visits demonstrate that China's notion of "traditional friendship
with Africa" by far trumps any Chinese interest in the flow of commodities
between the agrarian continent and the once-booming Asian giant. Observers
nodded absent-mindedly and rushed hurriedly to conjure better-tasting intrigue.
Some commentators chose to develop the earlier portrait of Chinese efforts, as
encircling the West in anticipation of a beckoning Machiavellianism and
mercantilism in global trade, commerce and geopolitics in the wake of the
financial crisis, and noted that while China had twice the size of sub-Saharan
Africa's population, it nevertheless had one vote on the floor of various
United Nations agencies, as compared to 50 some for Africa. Hu's choice of
country visits, based on such logic, could thus only have been motivated by the
desire to visit as many African countries as possible, and to engage in a
powerful, if also political capital intensive, "geo-symbolism" that will
manifest its usefulness should the growing outcry of a new world economic order
lead to a greater multilateralism and its attendant universal international
Such a view, as has been mentioned already, is of course not merely compatible
with but in actual fact integral to the hard diplomacy of imprinting a Chinese
signet on a new economic globalization. Nor should it be found wanting should
the fact be established, as many now suspect, that China's economy, long fueled
by speculation of diverse kinds, is tottering on the brink. For even if the
Chinese miracle is a Ponzi scheme, incessant and diversified expansion would
surely be its most prudent guarantee of perpetuation, and the growing South,
more so than the mature North, would be the best source of fresh vitality, not
least because it must be Northern interests that are now fleeing the putative
paper tiger they had themselves inflated.
And the Africans? Some lament that the African countries sucked into this
maelstrom they can hardly appreciate, and whose tendency is to misidentify
every star for a firefly, have almost blindly marched themselves into an
addiction they are going to struggle very hard to break. Before Hu set off for
Africa, Angola's Dos Santos was in Beijing begging for more money to plug
gaping holes in his country's finances after betting wrongly on the trend of
oil prices. Namibia, a regional neighbor of Angola, has also made similar pleas
to China with regard to a considerable infrastructure development bill the
country's leaders had assumed will be picked up by China altruistically rather
than as part of concessions favoring Chinese labor interests.
The growing dependency of countries like Angola, Namibia, Zambia and Ethiopia
on Chinese largesse, exacerbated by the increasing integration of Chinese
strategy into those country's growth sectors, as for instance in the recent use
of "trade and economic cooperation zones" to guide Chinese penetration into
local market nerve centers, have provided fodder for some analysts concerned
with the larger meaning of Hu's visit. This school of commentators has much
circumstantial evidence at hand, only the most striking of which needs be
China's largest private equity fund is Africa-focused, but like other Chinese
investment vehicles on the continent, it obeys nearly no international
guidelines on capital investment, frequently trading the most mismatched of
asset classes for one another and shrouding every deal in the densest opacity.
The argument is that such an approach is strategic: it ties the hands of
individual target-country elites and renders much less problematic the project
of sustainable economic control, and certainly so in comparison with the
national-systemic approaches favored by Western operators. As if on cue, the
Tanzanian leg of Hu's visit threw up another such circumstantial piece.
It has been announced that half of the Tanzanian state airline would be sold to
a shady Chinese conglomerate dominant in the Angolan oil and infrastructure
industry, but the terms of payments are steeped in characteristic ambiguity.
Sources mention that an oil concession is involved. Tanzania is on the cusp of
commercial oil production. The talk in Tanzania is that every precept in the
national rule book is being breached. Perhaps, in furtherance of the elite
circumcision theory raised above?
Indeed the last point throws up the most fascinating, and by the same score
most circumstantial, piece of analysis to emerge in the wake of this latest
Sino-African diplomatic pageant. Forget about the grand geopolitics: the
driving force of at least a considerable part of this
Sino-African-Gulf-Americas nexus is plain old grand corruption.
This intriguing viewpoint is woven from threads running through several of the
discussions above. The "shady Chinese conglomerate" is China Sonangol
International, an investment vehicle designed in 2004 to carry the Sino-Angolan
oil trade. Now, there has been much whispered about the legendary wealth of
Angola's leader, Eduardo Dos Santos; a certain missing $1 billion dollars in
Angolan state funds; the murkiness of Chinese investments in the Angolan
petroleum sector and the actual delivery of the oil to China; and about the
growing but opaque intertwining of Chinese and Angolan state-connected
corporate interests towards a monopolization of the energy and construction
sectors, of which Sonangol is itself a prime example.
What is most interesting however is an incident in 2004, which elicited the
earliest tentative clues with regard to the possibility of "geo-economic graft"
in these affairs. This was the famous Enarsa-Sonangol joint venture in
Argentina. The bizarre introduction of Angolan interests in what was a
Sino-Argentinean deal initially baffled observers for its defiance of standard
geo-economic treatment, until a new lens - that of pure inter-elite collusion -
was trained on the issue. To date, the full details of the Angolan involvement
remain shrouded in secrecy.
Thus, while geopolitical framing and geo-economic posturing remains the prime
backdrops for analyzing Chinese diplomatic activities in Africa, such as the
just-ended Hu visit, a new trend is emerging in the Sino-African analysis
discipline that, although young and less grounded in rich evidence, is
powerfully stressing a new approach to deciphering the driving currents of the
Sino-African relationship. It asks simply that observers deflect some of the
attention from the grand and elaborate politics of world affairs to the more
elementary relationships and incentives of the individuals at the center of
these mighty chapters in the Sino-African saga.
Observers of the above mind are, one would imagine, poring over Hu's dinner
lists at the African State Houses, more so than the communiques.
Bright B Simons is an executive at IMANI-Ghana, a think-tank voted the
sixth-most influential in Africa this year by Foreign Policy Magazine.