China in Africa: Western fears, African Hopes

The second China-Africa summit has just ended in Sharm EL Sheik in Egypt. The first summit was held in Beijing in 2006. In between several high level meetings between African and Chinese leaders have been held in Africa and China. On  November 15, a week after the opening of the just ended summit, President Barack Obama of the United States of America will visit China.

The second China-Africa summit has just ended in Sharm EL Sheik in Egypt. The first summit was held in Beijing in 2006. In between several high level meetings between African and Chinese leaders have been held in Africa and China.

On  November 15, a week after the opening of the just ended summit, President Barack Obama of the United States of America will visit China.

The two events show the growing importance of China in the world. And China is aware of its attraction status and has positioned itself to exploit it to the full.

But that is not to say that China’s rising importance, particularly the presence in Africa, is universally welcomed. Indeed there is a simmering conflict between the West (led by the United States) and China.

The West sees China as a threat to its dominance and influence in Africa, and a formidable trade competitor.

And talking about influence, there are still such things as spheres of influence even in the twenty-first century.

You will remember that at the height of the genocide in Rwanda, the United Nations designated France as the best placed country to help solve the problem because Rwanda supposedly lay in its sphere of influence.,

The perception of threat of domination is not new. For nearly half of the last century there was a mighty duel between the West and the Soviet Union.

The duel was hugely ideological and therefore easy to define and to fight. The lines were clear: it was them against us.  And so there was a great deal of sparring, fencing and shadow-boxing which often broke out into long and bloody proxy wars in Africa.

The Soviet Union is no more, and the threat against domination should have disappeared. Well, it did. Until China started spreading its presence in Africa.

However, unlike with the Soviet Union, the West does not seem to know exactly how to deal with China. The lines of belligerence are not quite clear.

In the first place China does not want to impose its political or economic system on African countries. That denies the West the ideological casus belli.

Secondly, China only wants to trade. Chinese companies are swarming the African continent for investment opportunities.

They are pouring money into oil in such ideologically different countries as Sudan, Angola and Nigeria, snapping up road construction deals in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and going into general construction all over Africa.

All this in addition to interest in mining of precious and probably strategic minerals, and general merchandise. Proof of this growing trade is in the impressive investment figures.

It is reported that Chinese investment in Africa increased from US $491 million in 2003 to US $7.8 billion in 2008. Trade with Africa was worth US $200 billion in the same year.

The just ended summit has mapped out more trade, investment and other forms of cooperation running between 2010 and 2012 worth billions of dollars.

Now, that is a good enough reason for a fight. But despite the obvious rivalry and great disputes between the West and China, we are not going to see a conflict like that between the West and the Soviet Union.

There are several reasons for this.   First, China is playing by the rules of the West. It is operating on the basis of principles of free market economics in a classical capitalist manner. Wall Street cannot find fault with that.

Secondly, the West, especially the United States, needs China as a partner in finding solutions to some of the world’s major problems such as climate change, nuclear proliferation and international terrorism.

Then there is the big one – the fact that China is now America’s biggest lender through the buying of treasury securities.

The fear here is that China could use this fact to break the status of the dollar as a reserve currency if it chose to. Indications are that China is not interested in this possibility.

That, however, does not remove the possibility.
There is therefore mutual economic and diplomatic interest in keeping the rivalry and disputes in check.

Where does this leave the African countries? Apparently in a good position. The catch phrase in Africa today is: more trade and investment, not aid.

This seems to be China’s way. There is therefore a convergence of interests, and that should be good for Africa.

You can be sure, however, that while the classical form of conflict may not be applicable here, other forms of carrying on the fight will be used. And it has not been long in coming.

The most favoured option at the moment is two-pronged: to discredit China and partner African countries in their dealings.

This is how it is done. China’s integrity is brought into question usually by suggesting that its human rights record is so bad that it is immoral to do business with the country.

In the same vein, African countries that want to do business with China are doing so because they are looking for the least accountable way to development; that they are running away from stringent Western concerns about governance, human rights and corruption.

The West, of course, continues to do business with China, these concerns notwithstanding.  The Western foreign ministries and media have taken the lead in this level of conflict.

For instance, a Reuters News Agency reporter in Kigali asked President Paul Kagame at a recent press conference here whether he was looking to China precisely because of these concerns. The president rubbished the suggestion, answering that his concerns were about trade and investment for Rwanda.

Whatever label is given to China, the fact is it is an important world player. The West knows it. That is why President Barack Obama is going to Beijing this Sunday.

Africa knows it. That is why African leaders gathered in Sharm el Sheik to meet the Chinese Prime Minister. China enjoys being wooed as it does being a suitor.

jorwagatare@yahoo.co.uk

 

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