Close on the heels of the latest sham election in Zimbabwe, the
International Criminal Court announced last week that it is seeking the arrest
of the president of Sudan on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes
against humanity. As Africa notches up more failures on the long road out of
colonialism, a new pseudo-colonial power--China--is busily engaged in getting
exactly what it wants out of the continent. The implications for the kind of
political and economic evolution likely to unfold in Africa are significant.
Until about 20 years ago, China's interest in Africa consisted mainly of
encouraging Marxist revolutionary factions. Lately, however, that interest has
taken a decidedly economic turn. China is in the market for most of Africa's
products and is selling its own there as well. Once a major oil exporter, China
became a net importer of oil in 1993 and is now dependent on imports for half
its oil and natural gas. To meet this need, it has diversified its sources, in
particular making deals with most of Africa's oil-producing states.
Just in the past three years, Beijing has signed energy deals with Algeria,
Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, and Sudan. Its investment in Sudan's pipeline and
refinery infrastructure, valued at between $3 billion and $5 billion, is
mind-boggling in such a poor country, but it is not unusual for the energy
industry. China bought a stake in a Nigerian offshore field two years ago for
$2.5 billion and promised to invest the same amount in further exploration and
China has huge investments in Algeria, with whose government it is also
cooperating on the development of nuclear energy, and Angola, which this spring
overtook Nigeria as the continent's largest producer of oil.
Chinese investment in Africa took off exponentially in the early 1990s. So
did China-Africa trade. According to the Nigerian economist Adama Gaye, trade
between China and Africa reached the $10 billion mark in 2000 and is likely to
reach $55 billion this year. If it reaches $100 billion in 2010, as Gaye thinks
likely, it will surpass both American and French trade with Africa. The
continent's other major trading partners are India (growing) and Britain (not growing).
Significantly, Nigeria's then-president Olusegun Obasanjo, once a U.S.
favorite, said last year that this would be the Chinese century, and he
encouraged Africans to stay with the leader. There is no question China's mix
of authoritarianism and rapid economic development is tempting to states whose
political and economic institutions are fragile and whose relations with the
liberal West tend to be ambivalent.
Not that the United States has been absent from African affairs. On the
contrary, the Bush administration has supported huge increases in African
exports to the United States (through the tariff-ending Africa Growth
Opportunity Act) and U.S. investments in Africa (through the State Department's
Overseas Private Investment Corporation), as well as debt relief initiatives,
development aid in agriculture, and programs to combat disease and keep
children in school. The Bush administration has encouraged African development
more seriously than any of its predecessors, and it has insisted that prosperity
is more likely to endure if accompanied by the spread of the institutions that
sustain free societies, rather than the authoritarian model China promotes.
Which will be the ascendant influence? Chinese consumer
goods are becoming ubiquitous in Africa, as elsewhere. "Made in
China" clothes, personal and commercial vehicles, and electronics are
widely available, and Chinese fast-food is even catching on. High level trade
and investment delegations on multi-country tours are almost banal, while the
annual "China-Africa Forums" are becoming more important in terms of
deal-making than the Francophonie summits that France sponsors. Chinese
assistance includes the deployment of thousands of doctors to fight tropical
and infectious diseases.
The Chinese contribute hospitals, schools, and roads--they are building the
trans-Maghreb highway across Algeria, for example, on which travelers ride in
Chinese-assembled buses. Although as recently as a few years back Peugeot was
the dominant car in West Africa by far, Japan's Toyota and Korea's Hyundai,
both assembled in China, and China's own Chery Automobile will soon overtake
Prestige follows power. "Confucian Centers" are promoting Chinese
language study in 16 countries, while "Confucian Institutes" in
partnership with local universities have been established for advanced study of
language and management in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and South Africa. Scholarships
are offered for university study in China. Chinese radio broadcasts in several
languages compete with the popular programs of the Voice of America, the BBC,
China's military role on the continent has grown in importance. Equipment
and advisers have been sent to Congo (Kinshasa) and Angola, and there were
reports in 2003 that firms fronting for the People's Liberation Army were
smuggling weapons to Sierra Leone and Liberia during those small West African
countries' catastrophic diamond wars, into which Ivory Coast, beset by its own
north-south sectional and tribal problems, was drawn.
China's diplomatic support for the regime in Khartoum is well known as a
result of Western efforts to broker peace among the many contending Sudanese
clans and tribes. Lately Beijing, concerned to avoid criticism of its embrace
of brutal regimes in the run-up to the Olympic Games, has pressured Sudan to
cooperate with the deployment of a U.N.-African Union force to protect people
in the war-torn Darfur province from tribal militias, some of which Khartoum
has armed and supported.
It is worth keeping in mind, however, that civil wars have raged in Sudan
practically without interruption since independence in 1956, and China,
building its influence in the country, made no effort to stop them. Beijing's
official position has been that the "situation in Sudan is an internal
affair," as one Chinese foreign minister said. Although wars between the
Arab north and the black south officially ended in 2005, the government of Omar
al-Bashir is showing little inclination to respect the share-the-oil part of
the U.S.-brokered peace agreement. Khartoum has spent some of its revenue from
oil on Chinese arms, reinforced by Chinese military personnel.
Meanwhile, the violence in Darfur, which began with the revolt of Muslim
tribes in the western province and led to brutal counterinsurgency campaigns,
recently blew back into Khartoum. One of the many Darfuri armed groups sent a
motorized column into Sudan's capital, where it was decimated--quite possibly
with direct Chinese help. J. Peter Pham, a professor at James Madison
University and a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who
reported last year on the Chinese military association with Sudan, notes
that when you provide a regime with $100 million worth of supersonic fighter
jets, you must really intend for that regime to survive.
Darfur crisis watchers and activists are well aware that the people they are
trying to protect in that disaster zone (a quarter of a million killed, two
million displaced) are attacked from the air as well as on the ground.
Meanwhile, a congressionally mandated report dated October 2006 had already put
at anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 the number of Chinese soldiers in Sudan,
lightly disguised as petroleum engineers and construction workers.
Sudan's complexities, however, are unlikely to becloud China's keen sense of
its own interests. In the Horn of Africa, for example, Pham points out China
has sold a billion dollars' worth of arms to both sides in one of the
continent's many underreported conflicts, the one between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Beijing bet heavily on Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, but if or when the southerners
go back to the hills to fight for their independence (and their oil), it may
well be with arms supplied by China. Until then, Bashir's indictment by the
International Criminal Court can only strengthen the Chinese hand to the degree
it increases the president's diplomatic isolation.
Arms, too--specifically a shipment of three million AK-47 rounds,
rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars--are at the center of the latest episode
in the long and warm relationship between China and Zimbabwe. The shipment, on
the An Yue Jiang last April, was by no means unusual, but dockworkers in
Durban, South Africa, refused to unload it for the overland part of its
The good relations between South Africa and Zimbabwe have been strained by
the crazy rule of Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, which has wrecked a
once-flourishing economy, murdered opposition activists, shut down a vigorous
independent press, and now is forcing tens of thousands of refugees across the
border into Botswana and South Africa, leading to deadly riots. Under these
conditions, sending arms right in the middle of a presidential election that
the ruling clique was determined to brazen out (Mugabe openly stated he would
not allow the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to come to power)
strained even the old-comrade ties that have made South African president Thabo
Mbeki reluctant to criticize Mugabe.
It is of course quite possible that the days of strongmen like Mugabe are
numbered anyway. In the meantime, however, the An Yue Jiang's cargo
reportedly arrived safe and sound in Harare, having transited through
Mozambique. Will Chinese president Hu Jintao give some stern advice to Mugabe,
as he did in June to the Sudanese vice president?
During violence in Kenya last winter sparked by flawed elections, China's People's
Daily (the organ of the ruling party) editorialized that
"Western-style democracy is not suited for Africa." However, passing
through Washington last month, Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, sharply
criticized Mugabe and called free elections imperative in Zimbabwe.
If an American presidential candidate did the
same--if, without injecting himself into Zimbabwe's or Sudan's or any other
country's internal politics, Barack Obama or John McCain made it clear the
United States dislikes the kinds of political regimes China promotes and
enables--Africans would surely take note. Indeed, in a campaign year unlike any
previous one, Americans themselves might notice.