Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    China Business
     Feb 2, 2007
China's new 'win-win' strategy in Africa
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - It was only a few months ago that Chinese leaders wined and dined top officials from 48 of Africa's 53 nations in Beijing, but it's already time for another grand gesture toward the resource-rich continent.

Carrying the national checkbook and a checklist of energy needs, President Hu Jintao set off this week for his third tour of Africa in the past four years. He will visit eight nations in 12 days, dishing out billions of dollars in loans and aid, while at the same time

enhancing business ties and expanding China's access to oil and raw materials.

Trade between China and Africa, the focus of a historic two-day Beijing summit last November, has jumped more than fivefold since 2001, reaching US$55.5 billion last year. Premier Wen Jiabao has said he hopes Sino-African trade will rise to $100 billion by 2010.

In addition, Beijing is offering $10 billion in aid to African countries over the next three years and dispatching volunteers to provide medicine and build hospitals and schools. The deepening relationship has been characterized as "win-win" on both sides.

In Cameroon, the first stop on Hu's tour, the president went through the paces of what has become his African routine: he met with his Cameroonian counterpart, Paul Biya, before visiting a hospital funded by the Chinese government and a sports ground built by a Chinese company. There followed a gala dinner at which flattering toasts were exchanged and the announcement that agreements had been signed to boost bilateral trade, which totaled $338 million last year, double the year before.

This was the first visit by a Chinese head of state to Cameroon, a West African nation of 16 million people, and Hu did not spoil it by bringing up the unpleasant realities of widespread human-rights abuses and endemic corruption that are hallmarks of many African governments. It was the usual no-strings-attached Chinese diplomacy that African leaders have come to love. In exchange for helping China meet its voracious energy needs, they get lucrative business contracts, preferential loans, export credits and a much-appreciated pledge of non-interference in their internal affairs.

Since China has its own problems with corruption and human-rights violations at home, this strictly trade-for-aid deal has suited both parties very well. As China's economic power and influence continue to rise, however, its leaders face mounting pressure to play a more responsible role in international affairs. And Hu's latest African safari may serve as a crucible on this score.

No one is expecting the president to engage in Western-style criticism of African governments, but analysts are looking for subtle changes in posture. And the testing ground is not really Wednesday's sojourn in Cameroon or six of the other seven states he is to visit: Liberia, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and Seychelles.

But Hu faces a substantial diplomatic challenge when he lands in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Friday. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wants the president to use his rising influence to help bring peace to Sudan's western Darfur region. More than half of Sudan's oil exports go to China, and Beijing is the country's leading arms supplier.

The United Nations says more than 200,000 people have been killed and another 2.5 million displaced during the four-year conflict between local rebels and government-sanctioned militia in Darfur. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China has thus far opposed efforts to force the government of President Omar al-Bashir to accept a UN peacekeeping force.

Bashir has denied backing an Arab militia, known as the Janjaweed, against the black tribesmen of the region and rejected the proposed UN force as an attempt to recolonize his country. Bashir has agreed to the presence of 7,000 peacekeepers from the African Union (AU), to which he aspires to be elected chairman this week, but the violence and refugee crisis reportedly continue.

Against this background, Hu will arrive in Sudan, where his country's oil interests, already substantial, continue to grow. Sudan currently accounts for about 5% of China's oil, and China National Petroleum Corp owns 40% of the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Co. In addition, Sinopec (China Petroleum and Chemical Corp) is constructing a 1,500-kilometer pipeline to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, where the China Petroleum Engineering and Construction Group is building a tanker terminal.

The UN secretary general and other international leaders would like to see Hu parlay China's substantial economic presence in Sudan into diplomatic influence to nudge Bashir toward accepting a UN force to supplement the struggling AU troops.

Predictably, rights groups are also chiming in. New York-based Human Rights Watch called on China "to fulfill its international obligations and be seen as a responsible power", adding: "Undertaking these steps will help demonstrate that China's interest in Sudan is not merely about ensuring its access to oil supplies but also about the welfare of the Sudanese people so devastated by the ongoing conflict."

This time around in Africa, Hu appears to be responding to the pressure. Assistant foreign minister Zhai Jun raised expectations this week when he said: "I believe this visit will not only boost bilateral ties, but also peace and stability in the region."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu has also been quoted this week as saying that the Darfur impasse "can be properly solved through political negotiations".

Does this signal a shift in China's policy of non-interference?

Don't expect China to threaten sanctions or engage in any other act of high-profile diplomatic pressure. There is too much at stake economically in Africa and, besides, the hypocrisy of China taking up the mantle of human-rights champion in Darfur or anywhere else would be self-defeating.

All signs point, however, to a private Hu-Bashir dialogue during which the Chinese leader will encourage his host to work toward a settlement of the Darfur crisis. If this soft brand of Chinese diplomacy proves effective, Hu will have achieved more than another economic victory this time in Africa. This would truly be a "win-win" scenario for the president.

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer at Hong Kong International School. He can be reached at kewing@hkis.edu.hk.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

China in Africa: From capitalism to colonialism (Jan 5, '07)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2007 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110