China’s rapid ascension as an influential economic and political force in Africa is raising complex questions concerning the security of the African continent and the future of its people. China’s involvement on the continent has increased dramatically over the past several years, fueled by Africa’s growing demand for cheap Chinese products and the need for greater infrastructure investment in the African energy and transportation sectors.
Africa possesses two key attributes which makes it an attractive investment for an expansionist China. First, it is a continent rich in the high-value, natural resources necessary to propel China’s maturing economy. Second, it offers a virtual sanctuary from American democratic ideology.
To many Africans, the prospect of increased cooperation with China is an exciting development laden with enormous opportunities for growth and prosperity. Many older Africans vividly recall how their homeland was exploited by Western interests who failed to empower local populations, leading to widespread human suffering that still exists today.
But will China, with visions of global influence and economic growth, act in a more constructive manner toward Africa, avoiding the mistakes made by its Western predecessors?
Unfortunately for many Africans, China’s record of resource exploitation and global obstructionism point to an uncertain future. China’s long record of human rights violations in Hong Kong and Tibet; suppression of religious and political freedoms; history of weapons proliferation; support of brutal regimes in North Korea and Iran; and its disregard for indigenous markets, raise legitimate questions regarding its long-term intentions on the continent and its commitment to the African people.
Recently, the London-based Africa Confidential Newsletter, a publication devoted to African issues, noted that it feared African countries would “become more corrupt by doing business with China.” Gal Luft of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) noted in November 2004, “The Chinese are much more prone to doing business in a way that today Europeans and Americans do not accept – paying bribes and all kinds of bonuses under the table, particularly in Nigeria, Angola, Chad, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea.”
China’s emerging relationship with all of Africa is extremely important, however, it has taken on particular significance in two countries -- Nigeria and Sudan.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo’s visit to China in April, his third since being elected in 1999, further solidified relations between the two countries with agreements signed in the areas of political cooperation, telecommunications, bilateral trade and two-way investment.
Chinese President Hu Jiabao expressed his hope that the two countries would improve cooperation in the areas of gas exploration, manufacturing and infrastructure to promote a “fair and reasonable new international political and economic order.” The players involved in Jiabao’s new “order” and its purpose remain a mystery to Western analysts; however, it almost certainly does not include the United States and the spread of democracy on the African continent.
President Jiabao also expressed his deep appreciation for Nigeria’s consistent adherence to China policy and its support of China’s Anti-Secession Law, adding to the unsettling nature of the growing bilateral relationship.
Nigeria’s economy is heavily dependant on oil, with 80 percent of government revenues coming from its sale. Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa and the eleventh largest in the world. It continues to be a major oil supplier to both Western Europe and the United States.
The January 2005 edition of Oil and Gas Journal reported that Nigeria produced 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2004 and was expected to increase production to 3 million bpd in 2006 and 4 million bpd by 2010. Obviously, this has pleased the Chinese who continue to invest boatloads of cash into the country’s energy sector.
In November 2004, China’s Funsho Kupolokum announced a joint agreement with Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to develop two oil blocks in the Chad Basin and construct a pipeline and refinery. In addition, Chinese oil giant Sinopec reached a joint agreement with NNPC in December 2004 to develop and explore two more oil blocks in 2005.
But not all agreements between the two countries have been energy related. In April, Nigeria reached an agreement with China to become the first African nation to purchase a Chinese communications satellite. The Dongfanghong IV will be launched in 2007 from the Xichang Space Launch Centre in Southwest China’s Sichuan Province.
This agreement merits close attention and in many ways is extremely troubling, since it clearly sets the stage for future exchanges of Chinese intelligence and technology between the two countries. Two other customers, Iran and North Korea, have used advanced technology supplied by Chinese firms in the development of nuclear programs. Could Chinese technicians one day work in tandem with a radical, Islamic-led Nigerian government on a plutonium reactor? Let’s hope not.
Adding to fears of a growing Chinese presence in Africa is a recent U.N. investigation which uncovered al Qaeda training and recruiting bases in western Nigeria. The West-hating, Saudi-sponsored Wahabbi strain of Islam has already moved into parts of Nigeria with the hope of establishing a Taliban sanctuary in Africa. Taken together, Chinese instigation and Islamic terrorism pose a serious security threat for the entire continent.
The current Sudanese government consists of an alliance between the military and the National Congress Party (NCP) which promotes an Islamist platform. Recently, Islamic Sharia law was forcibly applied to all northern Sudanese states. “The current government is now a very pragmatic police state,” said Ghazi Suleiman, a Sudanese human rights lawyer.
Like Nigeria, Sudan has enormous natural resources making it attractive to foreign investors like China, the European Union and the United States. An improved currency and sustained GDP growth of 6 percent have been encouraging, but Sudan remains crippled by $24 billion in external debt. This has forced the country to look to foreign investors for the development of its domestic industries, in particular, its oil and natural gas sectors.
In 1993, the U.S. designated Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism. In response, Sudan fostered a close relationship with China using oil revenues to buy Chinese tanks, planes and guns. These weapons were then used to suppress the country’s southern, non-Muslim minority. The military relationship between the two countries has gradually evolved to include economic issues, namely, energy exploration and production.
In August 2005, Sudan is expected to begin exporting oil from the Melut Basin as a result of cooperative work with Petrodar, a consortium of companies dominated by China’s state-run Sinopec. Sudanese Energy Ministry officials estimate proven reserves in the Melut Basin at 700 million barrels and total reserves at five billion barrels. Petrodar also helped build the Sudanese owned Khartoum Oil Refinery, recently investing $340 million to expand the facility.
Construction of the 2,500 megawatt Merone facility scheduled for completion in 2008 has been funded by China’s Harbin Power and several Arab interests. In addition, the Chinese government is financing 75 percent of the $200 million Kajbar Dam construction project which has received stinging criticism from environmental groups noting that the project is damaging the Nile ecosystem.
But Chinese involvement in the Sudanese energy sector has not come without a price. A 2003 Human Rights Watch report examining human rights abuses by the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), a majority owned Chinese energy concern noted, “GNPOC did not hire local southern Sudanese laborers [non-Muslim], even for the most menial work. Instead, Chinese and northern [Muslim] Sudanese workers were hired. Furthermore, such construction often entailed the violent displacement of local agro-pastoral people from their land, so that the necessary infrastructure could be put in place to develop the oil fields.”
China’s deliberate support of the Sudanese government in the face of continued human rights violations in Darfur is disturbing not only to the Sudanese, but also to Africans and the international community. The country’s twenty-one year civil war between its northern Sunni Muslim population and southern non-Muslim population has taken the lives of more than 2 million people.
In early April, Harvard University responded to the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region and Chinese support of the Sudanese government by divesting from PetroChina, a subsidiary of Chinese Natural Petroleum Company (CNPC). “Oil is a critical source of revenue and an asset of paramount strategic importance to the Sudanese government and PetroChina is a leading partner of the Sudanese government,” the university noted.
Christian Aid, a United Kingdom-based human rights organization, recently noted, “CNPC’s oil roads and airstrips were used to conduct bombing raids on southern Sudanese villages and hospitals.” The organization also accused the Chinese company, through its continued investment in Sudan’s oil industry, of being “complicit in some of the worst scorched earth policies.”
In the end, African leaders must assess their relationship with China very carefully, balancing the challenges of accelerated resource extraction with the future needs of the African people. It will also be important for Africans to hold China accountable for its actions on the continent. To ensure the fair treatment of all Africans, solidarity should be pursued through the African Union (AU) or the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).
By taking this cautious approach, a destabilizing “re-colonization” of the continent will be avoided.
Frederick W. Stakelbeck, Jr. is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.