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Monday, April 09, 2007

The Chinese Are Coming To Africa

When asked his assessment of the French Revolution of 1789, the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is famously reported to have replied that it was too early to say.

It may also be premature to compare the long-term consequences of the invasion of Iraq to Anthony Eden's Suez crisis or to describe George Bush as the last president of the American Empire. But the humbling suffered by American forces will undoubtedly make the US less willing to undertake unilateral military interventions elsewhere, while the rising economic power of China is now visibly challenging US pre-eminence.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa where Chinese diplomatic and economic relations have been growing exponentially over the last few years. Sino-African trade grew by 700% during the 1990s and President Hu's recent visit to eight African countries is a sign of China's growing political engagement with the continent.

As most of Africa finally returns to peace, a new scramble is starting for its resources in which China has already established itself as a leading player. Chinese state-owned and private companies are making strategic inroads into the construction and infrastructure sectors in many African economies, mainly at the expense of European ones. A recently published report by the Department for International Development, on China's involvement in Africa's construction and infrastructure sector, shows the extent of this rising influence.

China is pursuing a deliberate policy based on what President Hu has declared to be "six principles" of Sino-African relations. These include respect for Africa's sovereignty, economic assistance with limited political conditions, increased lobbying for the international community to pay more attention to Africa, and the promotion of an international environment more conducive to Africa's development.

These policies contrast quite sharply with the policy of western donors and the World Bank who have made their assistance conditional on good governance and human rights commitments - and many African governments have enthusiastically embraced China as an alternative to the west. A chamber of commerce for Chinese Companies in Angola has recently been established and there are now more than 30,000 Chinese nationals living in the country. Typically, Chinese workers receive very low stipends, which make it economical for Chinese companies to import such labour at a fraction of what it would cost their European competitors.

China's main interest in Angola is oil, but it is also building houses and roads and rehabilitating the country's war-damaged infrastructure. It is providing the government with low-interest loans and has donated agricultural and medical equipment. Loans from China and Brazil make the World Bank's lending seem puny by comparison.

The same is true elsewhere in Africa. There has been an influx of Chinese immigration to countries such as Zambia, Tanzania and Sierra Leone, while oil-rich Sudan has also become an important trading partner.

Many do not seem to have fully grasped the consequences of this engagement. Tony Blair's recently reported threatto bomb the Sudanese air force, as a means of resolving the crisis in Darfur, shows that imperialist delusions are alive and well in certain quarters. Such a policy would have virtually no chance of being approved by the UN security council, where China wields a veto, and threats of unilateral military action sound increasingly like empty bluster given the west's over-stretch in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Calmer voices are pointing to the constructive role that China could play in helping to press the two sides towards a negotiated end to the conflict and what is true for Darfur could also be true for other parts of Africa as well. Zhou Yuxiao, chargé d'affaires at the Chinese embassy in South Africa, recently commented: "Sudan is a sovereign country and I'm sorry that we do not develop relations according to US or UK or any other country's instruction." However, China has as much of an interest as the rest of the world in promoting stability, if only because this creates an easier climate in which to do business.

The larger point, which it appears to be necessary to re-state, is that there is no alternative to multilateralism in finding solutions for crises like Darfur. As the economic influence of the so-called BRIC block countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China continues to grow, the idea that Europe and North America can impose solutions on the rest of the world becomes increasingly untenable.

This is not to say that it is wrong to promote concepts such as good governance and human rights - indeed such "soft power" has made the world a safer place in recent years - but this needs to be seen as part of a dialogue rather than a western imposition. We need to learn to engage with the world as it actually is and not as we might wish it to be.

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