By Njubi Nesbitt

China’s imminent replacement of the West as the dominant international economic and political force in Africa epitomizes the most dramatic shift in geopolitics since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet the United States and Europe, Africa’s traditional trading partners, seem incapable of responding to the challenge and retaking the initiative. Instead, their response has been to wring their hands in despair and make ineffectual noises about human rights and democracy.  

A recent Senate hearing on the implications of China’s role in Africa, for instance, concluded that the United States is ceding both its economic and political leadership in Africa. Led by Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), the panel urged the United States to respond by expanding trade and investments in Africa while defending its democratization agenda. This is a tall order, however, considering that the Obama administration’s top foreign policy priority in Africa is counterterrorism – a policy that undermines both the trade and human rights agendas.

China has already overtaken the United States as the continent’s main trading partner. According to David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, China surpassed the United States as Africa’s main trading partner in 2009. Testifying at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee on African Affairs meeting on November 1, Shinn estimated that China’s trade with African totaled $127 billion in 2010, a 40-percent increase from the previous year, compared to $113 billion for the United States. Today, the energy sector accounts for over 70 percent of China’s trade with Africa. China also imports 30 percent of its oil from African countries.

Senator Coons said at the hearing that China’s rise in Africa is “truly staggering.” Its trade and investment in Africa grew by 1,000 percent between 2000 and 2010, and its growth outpaced that of the United States by over 100 percent last year. The Chinese have focused on critical infrastructure projects such as building refineries, ports, roads, bridges, airports, and railroads. These projects are funded by concessional loans, some of which are interest-free for up to 20 years. Shinn noted that these include recent agreements with Angola for about $14.5 billion, Ghana for $13 billion, and the DRC for $6.5 billion. In return, the Chinese receive access to natural resources such as oil and rare minerals needed for the production of laptops, smart phones, and flat-screen televisions.

Scramble for Africa’s Resources

China is not the only challenge to the West’s dominance in the scramble for Africa’s resources. Other emerging economies such as India, Russia, Brazil, and Turkey are all investing heavily in Africa. Middle Eastern countries are also leasing large tracts of land in eastern Africa to grow food crops. India and several European countries are also eyeing Africa’s abundance of arable land and water as a solution to their growing food deficits. Iran and Turkey are increasing their business ties with Islamic nations in the Horn and North Africa.

The trend, therefore, is clear: the second scramble for African resources is in full swing. The difference between the first and second scrambles is that the first one involved European powers. Today, there are a multitude of new players led by the United States and China, but also including Brazil, India, Turkey, Iran, and the Persian Gulf States.

Brazil’s trade with Africa, for instance, increased fourfold from 2002 to $20.6 billion in 2010. Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff announced a new initiative to increase economic ties with Africa after touring the continent earlier last month. This new initiative builds on former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s calls for renewed engagement with Africa. During his tenure, Silva visited 25 African countries and doubled the number of Brazilian embassies on the continent.

Africa’s new partners recognize that the continent provides immense opportunities for trade and investment. Six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies over the last decade are in Africa. The United Nations Human Development Report indicated this year that Africa’s progress in human development (access to education, health care, food, etc) could outpace that of every other region in the next decades. Africa’s immense mineral wealth is dwarfed only by its potential. Geologists believe that three quarters of its reserves are yet to be discovered. The continent already has 40 percent of the world’s gold and over 85 percent of its platinum and chromium. It is also the top producer of vanadium, cobalt, diamonds, and chrome, and its iron ore reserves are staggering. It has 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land.

Africa is destined to play a major role in China’s food security as demand for food threatens to outstrip supply. In a recent paper published by Standard Bank, researchers Simon Freemantle and Jeremy Stevens argue that China is facing a food deficit in the near future. It is unable to produce sufficient food domestically to feed its burgeoning population. As a result, Chinese officials are eyeing Africa’s huge agricultural potential and building relations with friendly countries, such as Mozambique, where China has invested heavily in agricultural development. These investments produce crops such as soybeans, tobacco, coffee, tea, and cotton that are in demand in China. The researchers conclude that “managed well, partnerships with China can be meaningful. However, domestic food security must be placed first. Then, and leveraging Chinese aid, crops suited for China’s demand dynamics can and should be emphasized.”

Africa: Patient or Partner

Faced with these momentous changes in geopolitics, the West seems unwilling, or unable, to respond. The United States and Europe seem stuck in neocolonial perspectives that continue to paint Africa as an impoverished backwater that at most deserves sympathy and at worst contempt. They continue to treat Africans as patients rather than partners. At the subcommittee hearing, for instance, Sen. Coons estimated that 70 percent of the U.S. government’s investments in Africa are directed at health programs to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases. “We may be winning the war on disease but losing the battle for hearts and minds in Africa,” Sen. Coons told the panel. Although focusing on health is laudable, limiting government engagement solely to health is not. Many Africans consider this a paternalistic approach that ignores priorities of African governments like roads, railroads, oil refineries, ports, and other long-term infrastructure development projects.

In Liberia, for instance, the newly reelected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who came to power in 2006 after a decade of civil war, said that her top priority was rebuilding roads. She was unable to raise funds from Western nations and the World Bank so she turned to the Chinese, who immediately agreed to fund the project. Other examples include Ghana, where China is building an alumina refinery, and Chad and Niger, where it is building oil refineries. Angola also turned to China after its efforts to secure financing for infrastructure development from the West failed. In all these cases, traditional trading partners in Europe and the United States refused to even consider providing loans and expertise for these industrial projects. As Steven Hayes, the president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa, told the hearing: “Few U.S. banks will finance companies seeking to do business in Africa.”

Thus these partnerships with China offer African countries opportunities for industrialization that have remained a distant dream since independence. Steven Hayes told the hearing that the Chinese have “helped Africa perhaps more than any [other] nation has helped Africa in any ten-year period directly or indirectly.” Hayes argues that the increased competition for strategic minerals has raised commodity prices and thus national incomes. By investing in long-term development and industry, the Chinese model allows African countries to generate income to repay the loans and avoid accumulating unsustainable debts.

China’s Soft Power

China has longstanding political relations with many African countries. These relations stretch back to the 1950s and the Maoist period, when China offered socialist countries ideologically motivated aid for infrastructure projects such as railroads, stadiums, government buildings, and other development projects. In the early 1970s, for instance, the Chinese helped build the ambitious Tanzania-Zambia (TAZARA) railroad, designed primarily to export copper from landlocked Zambia to Tanzania’s Indian Ocean port of Dar-es-Salaam. During the Cold War, Sino-African relations were defined by shared goals such as South-South cooperation and support for anti-colonial and liberation movements in eastern and southern Africa. In the 1980s, Chinese leaders began to reevaluate their ideology-driven relations with African countries. As China continued its modernization process in the mid-80s, international relations became more pragmatic. By the 1990s these relations were re-centered to focus on partnerships in trade and investment rather than ideology.

Today, China has diplomatic relations with, and embassies in, 50 African countries. It emphasizes personal relations at the highest levels. China’s president Hu Jintao has visited Africa six times. The premier and foreign minister make annual visits to multiple African countries, and the Communist Party regularly invites African leaders to Beijing. During his 2006 tour of Africa, for instance, Premier Wen Jinbao emphasized that China was seeking partnerships based on equality and noninterference in the affairs of other countries. In contrast, the president of the United States and his vice president rarely visit African countries. President Obama has only visited Africa twice since 2008. There is very little personal contact at the presidential and cabinet levels.

This diplomatic offensive is partly motivated by China’s need for allies on the international stage. African states have significant voting power in international organizations such as the UN, the World Trade Organization, and the World Health Organization. As early as 1971, for instance, the African bloc at the UN helped transfer the Chinese seat at the UN Security Council from Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China. China also sought and received support from some African countries on the UN’s human rights committee when the issue of Tibet emerged in 2008. China continues to seek African counties’ support to advance its international agenda of marginalizing Taiwan and countering Western hegemony and criticism of its human rights record at home and abroad.

Chinese officials estimate that they have provided scholarships to 18,000 African students from 50 countries and sent 700 teachers to 33 countries since 1949. Since 2009, the Chinese government has offered 4,000 scholarships to African students every year. The Chinese government has sponsored the establishment of over 20 Confucius Institutes at universities around the continent. 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.

Arms Race?

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 percent 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 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 U.S. foreign policy in Africa – evidenced by the expansive role of the U.S. Africa Command  (AFRICOM), which is involved in counterterrorism activities in a dozen African countries, including the deployment of U.S. 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, U.S. 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 natural resources.

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 counterterrorism 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 U.S. 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.


- Originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus

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