Page 2 of 2 America vs China in Africa
By Francis Njubi Nesbitt
These institutes teach Chinese history, culture, and languages and promote
cultural exchanges. Chinese news agencies, radio outlets, and television
stations have established over 20 bureaus in Africa with regional offices in
Nairobi and Cairo. These media organizations offer alternatives to Reuters, AP,
CNN, and other Western media.
In addition to education, the Chinese policy of "health diplomacy" is also an
example of soft power. China's ministry of health reports, for instance, that
the government had sent 17,000 Chinese medical workers to 48 countries by the
end of last year. In addition, over 1,000 Chinese doctors were working in more
than 40 African countries in 2009. China has also built over 10 medical
facilities and 30 malaria treatment and prevention centers in Africa.
Over the last decade, China has also participated in peacekeeping operations,
anti-piracy campaigns, and post-war reconstruction efforts around the
continent. There are currently an estimated 1,600 Chinese peacekeepers
participating in eight UN peacekeeping missions around the continent.
According to a 2008 study by the Congressional Research Service on China's
"soft power," these international relations with Africa were outlined in a
Chinese government document released in 2006 titled China's African Policy. The
document outlines Beijing's desire to create "a new type of strategic
partnership with Africa."
These guiding principles are based on policy frameworks that go back to the
1950s and include mutual respect, noninterference in other countries' internal
affairs, equality, and peaceful coexistence. Politically, the document calls
for personal relations at all levels of government through visits and bilateral
commissions. Economically, it pledges duty-free treatment for some African
exports, free-trade agreements, and business partnerships. It also foresees
greater cooperation in agriculture, science, technology, and cultural
exchanges. The document offers to increase training and scholarships for
Africans attending Chinese universities.
Africans generally appreciate China's policy of noninterference in the internal
affairs of other countries. This focus on sovereignty means that African
governments can choose where to invest the funds according to their national
priorities and thus own the development process. In contrast, the West insists
on setting priorities that may not be in Africa's interest.
The Washington Consensus, for instance, demands that African countries
privatize development projects and cut government spending in social programs
such as education and health care. These policies have led to severe
underdevelopment and social unrest. The Chinese, however, are providing
billions of dollars in loans to build schools, hospitals, and other medical
facilities, often in rural areas.
Western conditionality also means that development aid and finance is easily
and frequently withheld or withdrawn altogether depending upon the immediate
political situation or the political perspectives of those in power in the
West. This means that the recipient countries cannot plan ahead and invest in
long-term industrialization projects. Chinese development aid and finance comes
with long-term guarantees and thus is more likely to be invested in
infrastructure projects that stimulate development.
To date, China has emphasized trade and diplomacy as opposed to defense in its
relations with Africa. China has no military bases in Africa. Nevertheless,
Beijing has long sold arms to African allies. Most recently arms deals with
countries such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria have drawn criticism. In some
cases, these shipments have included military aircraft. In 2008, the CRS
estimated that China controls about 15% of Africa's small arms market. It is
the third-largest exporter of conventional and small arms to Africa after
Germany and Russia. China also provides training for military officers and
maintains military-military exchanges with a reported 25 African countries.
A November 11 Southern Africa Report piece published by allafrica.com indicated
that the Zimbabwe Defense Force had received the first of several consignments
of Chinese small arms, including 20,000 AK-47 automatic rifles, uniforms, and
dozens of military trucks. These arms shipments were routed through an
intermediary country to avoid detection by Western governments that imposed an
arms embargo on Zimbabwe in 2002.
The report also indicated that Chinese officials are advising Zimbabwe's
intelligence services, and that China provided a $97-million loan to help
construct an intelligence training campus outside Harare. In exchange for the
arms, China reportedly received "lucrative platinum, lithium, aluminum, zinc,
and diamond concessions" in addition to farms to grow food crops. Between 1998
and 2002, when Zimbabwe was involved in the DRC civil war, China reportedly
sold $66-million-worth of small arms to Zimbabwe. It has sold 139 military
vehicles and 24 combat aircraft to Zimbabwe since 2004.
China's growing military engagement in countries such as Zimbabwe and Sudan
that are under Western sanctions portends a new danger of an arms race with the
United States. An arms race seems already underway in East Asia, where
President Obama has stationed troops in Australia in response to China's
growing military might.
China could very well respond by increasing its alliances with anti-Western
governments in Africa. Such an eventuality would be disastrous, especially
considering the increased militarization of US foreign policy in Africa -
evidenced by the expansive role of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which is
involved in counter terrorism activities in a dozen African countries,
including the deployment of US Special Forces in Uganda and its unofficial role
in the Kenyan invasion of Somalia.
At the senate hearing, critics of China's role in Africa repeated the oft-heard
refrain that Sino-African deals may conflict with international human rights,
governance, and environmental norms.
They deplored sales of weapons to countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe that
have been accused of human rights abuses by Western governments; the use of
imported Chinese workers; and the growth of small-scale Chinese businesses that
compete with indigenous entrepreneurs. They also warn that financing heavy
industry and construction projects could harm the environment and deplete
Africa's timber and fish stocks.
A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on labor abuses by Chinese-owned
copper mines in Zambia epitomizes this perspective. Titled "You'll be fired if
you refuse," the 122-page report indicates that the mines regularly flout
Zambian and international labor regulations. It details horrific health and
safety conditions, 12-18 hour shifts, and anti-union activities. According to
Daniel Bekele, HRW's Africa director, "China's significant investment in
Zambia's copper mining industry can benefit both Chinese and Zambians. But the
miners in Chinese-run companies have been subject to abusive health, safety,
and labor conditions and longtime government indifference."
Toward common ground
Despite their different approaches, US and Chinese interests in Africa are
complementary. Both nations need Africa's vast energy and mineral resources to
sustain their economies. Both nations also seek cordial diplomatic relations
with African countries. There are real differences, however, in their economic
and political philosophies, particularly when it comes to governance issues.
A critical element in finding common ground is respect for all perspectives,
especially those of the Africans. An inclusive process would avert growing
suspicions that the rest of the world is once again conspiring to loot Africa's
In the energy and mineral sectors, healthy competition could benefit Africa by
increasing commodity prices and thus national incomes. The interests in this
area are also complementary. China is particularly strong in infrastructure
development, while the United States has superior mining technology. Both these
strengths are good for Africa. Mineral extraction without infrastructure for
refining and manufacturing industries would maintain a global division of labor
in which Africa is a mere exporter of raw materials. By funding infrastructure
development, China is playing a critical role in the modernization process.
Both countries have strong health-sector programs on the continent that could
benefit from collaboration. This is particularly true in the areas of malaria
and tuberculosis prevention and treatment. The United States and China could
also collaborate on agricultural projects in Africa.
On the security front, there is also ample space for cooperation. China may not
support some of the counterintelligence and counter terrorism tactics used by
the United States, but their interests converge in the need to curb piracy,
drug smuggling, and illegal fishing in the western Indian Ocean. Both the US
and Chinese navies are active in the anti-piracy campaign, as they both depend
upon the sea lanes in and around the Gulf of Aden to transport critical energy
and trade goods. Closer collaboration would reduce tensions and benefit the
United States, China, and East Africa.
Finding common ground in trade and development policies would give the United
States and the West greater leverage in pressuring China to adhere to
international norms on labor, the environment, and human rights in its
interactions with Africa. This was evident in 2007, when China publicly rebuked
Sudan for its policies in Darfur and supported UN Security Council Resolution
1769, which authorized a peacekeeping force.
In the final analysis, history will show that the rise of China has been good
for African development. The Chinese model of "developmental state" has
provided an alternative to the Western model of market democracy. China has
also funded infrastructure and industrialization projects that the West has
refused to fund since the days of colonialism. It is to be hoped that these
projects will finally help Africa modernize - a dream that seems attainable for
the first time since independence.
Francis Njubi Nesbitt is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor and
teaches African politics and conflict resolution at San Diego State University.
He is the author of Race for Sanctions (Indiana University Press, 2004)
and is completing a book on peacemaking in the Horn of Africa.