Africa: What Does China Want in Africa?

By Oscar Kimanuka,*


Recent stories about China’s growing interest in Africa are worth commenting on. For China, Africa is a source of cheap coal and oil, two vitally important resources for its energy needs. As for African states, China is the ideal commercial partner that seldom slaps special political pre-conditions upon its readily available suppliers, and regularly gives the continent diplomatic backing. According to Dr Tom Barnett, in his article “Why China matters”, “China’s entry to the world was globalisation’s tipping point. After this, there is only further integration or war”. That sounds pretty ominous! And there is also the speculation that it is unlikely that an economic Cold War with China would work without escalating into a conventional conflict.

However, the Sino-African growing relations are in direct conflict with the interests of the Unites States, which is also seriously concerned with the challenge of diversifying the sources of its oil imports. What Africa needs to learn is to put forward its vital interests and avoid continuing to be a damping ground of second rate products and source of cheap vital raw materials, as time has always shown.

China’s development record and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) have appealed to many African governments who believe that this is in line with their development agenda. There are, however, complaints from countries such as Ghana and South Africa against what they have called “negative impact of China’s imports”.

While the Western donor nations continue asking uncomfortable questions with regard to Africa’s transparency, accountability, human rights and economic openness, China is willing to cut deals, and ask no such questions.

It will be recalled that Beijing’s relations with Africa have had a long history dating close to six centuries when explorers set sail from Asia across the Indian Ocean. However, in more recent times and particularly during the Cold War era, Beijing is said to have lined up supporters of its well known “One China” Policy on Taiwan by using aid as a carrot. And this worked well. China has many times played the empathy card, telling developing countries, particularly those in Africa, that it is no stranger to poverty. African leaders have had no room for manoeuvre because Western donor countries, euphemistically, called development partners, dictate free trade, open markets and privatisation, all of which are not done with levelled ground rules.

China’s aid to Africa has, therefore, come at an opportune moment when economic growth in much of the continent remains largely stagnant and Western donor aid increasingly tied.

The number of Chinese companies operating in Africa today is testimony to the seriousness with which it is moving into the continent. For instance, by 2004, according to Stephen Marks, there were nearly 700 Chinese companies operating in about 49 African countries. Today the figure has increased to nearly 900.

The low interest loans at non-commercial rates, extended to African countries, have been rewarded with diplomatic support from the continent at the United Nations. Besides economic interests, China has, since 1963, sent over 15,000 of its doctors in about 47 countries to treat nearly 180 million of HIV/Aids and other infectious diseases.

China’s preference for technical support over financial aid to African countries arises from the fact that financial aid stretches resources and diverts capital from significant needs back home.

While some politicians in the Western world would want to view Africa as a moral cause, China would rather see Africa as a business opportunity. From the resurrection of a number of hitherto failed projects such as Zambia’s copper mines and new oil deals and other ventures concluded during previous visits by Chinese leaders, it seems that Africa’s door has been kicked wide open and Beijing is becoming a heavy weight investor and serious political player.

Whichever way one looks at it, for us in Africa, China’s emergence as a global power could help us break free of our bitter colonial past as we absorb its investments. From the Chinese textile merchants in Lesotho, Chinese tourists in Zimbabwe, Chinese road builders in Ethiopia, Chinese geologists in Sudan and elsewhere, the evidence of Chinese presence in Africa is no longer a matter of debate. Whether or not Africa is caring about its own interest is another question.

*Culled From The New Times


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