Thursday, February 08, 2007

Chinafrica (10) Watching for PRC Influence in Africa

Guess Hu's Coming to Dinner
Published 08 Feb 07Strategic Interestsby J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.World Defense Review columnist

Last week, while much of the coverage by media outlets in the United States - and, consequently, American public attention and policy debate - remained riveted, as in the preceding weeks, on the situation in Iraq, President Hu Jintao of the People's Republic of China (PRC) kicked off a 12-day, eight-nation tour of Africa, the third since he took office in 2003.

Although the warmth of Hu's reception was never in doubt, before he left home, the Chinese leader announced a $3 billion program in preferential loans and expanded aid over the next three years for Africa. This increase comes on top of the $3 billion in loans and $2 billion in export credits for the same period that Hu announced last October at the opening of the historic Beijing summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) which brought nearly fifty African heads of state and ministers to the Chinese capital.

In the first stop on his current African tour, Hu dropped in on Cameroon where he had the opportunity to inspect two of the major public works made possible by recent Chinese largesse, the conference center in the capital of Yaoundé and a maternity hospital in the same city.

A third project, the Lagdo Dam and Reservoir, provides hydroelectric power in the mineral-rich North Province of the West African country, whose trade with China doubled in 2006 from the previous year, reaching approximately $338 million.

In addition to these growing economic ties, which will be boosted by the $100 million in grants and loans he signed off on during his stay in Cameroon, Hu was undoubtedly even more gratified by the evidence he saw of his country's diplomatic success in penetrating a country where a European power, France, had long been dominant.

In his toast at the state banquet concluding his Chinese guest's visit, Cameroonian President Paul Biya virtually gushed as he hailed China as a model for Africa: "Even if our ambitions may remain modest, we would like to be inspired by your example."

Moving on to Liberia, a country whose origin as a state go back to its foundation as a refuge for freed slaves from the United States who kept their new nation in America's orbit through most of its history, Hu became the first non-African head of state to call on Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf since her inauguration on January 16, 2005, as Africa's first elected woman president. The PRC has been active in Liberia in recent years, especially since deploying its troops for the first time as part of an international peacekeeping force with the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in 2003. The price of that deployment was that the West African country's transitional government cut off its longstanding diplomatic ties with that of the Republic of China on Taiwan. Since then, the Chinese official and private presence in Liberia, once a rarity, has become ubiquitous.

Last week, following a triumphal entry into the Liberia capital - thousands of children waving Chinese and Liberian flags lined the 35-mile route from Roberts International Airport - and a round of closed door talks between Hu and his Liberian counterpart, the two leaders signed no fewer than seven different accords.

The first was a framework agreement for economic and technical cooperation between the two countries. The second cancelled the estimated $15 million debt owed by Liberia to China. The third concerned Chinese assistance to the Fendell Campus of the University of Liberia, while the fourth dealt with the PRC providing Liberia with anti-malarial medication through the China-Liberia Center for Malaria Prevention and Treatment, which Hu inaugurated in what was once a wing of Monrovia's John F. Kennedy Hospital. The fifth accord covered the Chinese undertaking to build three rural schools. The sixth agreement gave special preference to Liberian goods which will be able to enter the Chinese market under a tariff waiver. The final protocol provided the cash-strapped Liberian government with an immediate $1.5 million cash infusion.

From Liberia, Hu flew off to Sudan, whose regime Beijing has not only enriched by buying some 400,000 barrels of oil daily (about 80 percent of the country's oil exports and 5 percent of the PRC's imports), but also shielded from being held fully accountable in the United Nations Security Council for what even the world body has repeatedly called the "worst humanitarian disaster" on the planet, the genocide in Darfur which has killed more than 400,000 people and left more than two million others homeless. In his public comments while in Khartoum, Hu reiterated that "any solution [in Darfur] needs to respect the sovereignty of Sudan" - the latter a tragically risible notion that will get a new shine from the new presidential palace that Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir will be getting courtesy of an interest-free loan announced during the PRC delegation's sojourn in his capital.

During his discussions with his Sudanese homologue, President Hu also extolled the 1,600-kilometer pipeline, built with Chinese financing, which, as I reported in a previous column, is taking oil of out South Sudan at a feverish pace ahead of the referendum in which most observers expect the region to secede from the writ of the country's Islamist regime.
After Sudan, Hu traveled on to Lusaka for talks with Zambian President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa. Last fall, during Mwanawasa's tight race for reelection - he was ultimately reelected with 43 percent of the vote after his two challengers, Michael Sata and Hakainde Hichilema, with 29.4 percent and 25.3 percent respectively, split the opposition vote - the PRC's envoy in Lusaka, Li Baodong, told the government-run Times of Zambia newspaper that he was advising Chinese firms in the mining, tourism, and construction sectors to suspend investments in the African country pending the outcome of the September 28, 2006, vote.

While Ambassador Li acknowledged that Zambians would lose job opportunities as a result of the suspension - the unemployment rate was already around 50 percent - he also called the action necessary because of Sata's "very unfortunate" characterization of Taiwan as a "sovereign country." The incident, which led the Zambian leader to publicly apologize to China for his opponent's comments, was an unprecedented break with the PRC's traditional behind-closed-doors approach to influencing developing countries.

At the conclusion of the discussions Sunday, Hu and his now-safely-reelected host, Mwanawasa, announced the creation of the Zambia-China Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, the first of five such areas which Hu promised the FOCAC summiteers would be inaugurated over the next three years.

The Zambia-China Zone, to be located north of the capital in the African country's Copper Belt Province, has as its official aim the creation of a chain of light industrial production around a $200 million copper smelting works in Chambishi to be built by the state-owned China Nonferrous Metal Mining Group (CNMC). CNMC already operates a 50,000-ton-per-year copper concentrate mine in the area and plans to expand its annual capacity to 110,000 tons by 2009. Other Chinese firms are expected to invest another $600 million in mines and factories within the new economic zone in exchange for exemptions from the import and value-added taxes that their competitors are subject to.

At the time of this writing, Hu still had four layovers remaining on his African tour - Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, and Seychelles - during which he is expected to sign a series of further deals on everything from opening African markets to Chinese fruits and tobacco to energy joint ventures. And he will have every reason to expect a rapturous reception from those Africans who, like the editor of the New Era newspaper in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, have attached themselves to the ascendant star in the East, proclaiming that "African-Sino [sic] friendship represents a partnership that is a departure from the neo-colonial relationship that may still define the relationship between the continent, the former colonial masters and modern-day Big Brother, the United States of America."

In a column last year on Chinese strategy in Africa, I noted that "the 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States declares that 'Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority of this Administration' - as it should be for a region that currently supplies America with 16 percent of its petroleum needs and which, according to a report prepared for the National Intelligence Council, will be providing more than one-quarter of its oil imports by 2015, thus surpassing the total volume of oil imports from the Middle East. Consequently, the growing influence of any major actor on the continent - especially one as dynamic as ascendant China - bears very careful watching."

While it is understandable how the foreign policy focus of U.S. policymakers and media might be trained primarily these days on the Greater Middle East, especially on the fight against terrorism, and perhaps even more narrowly fixed on Iraq, Hu Jintao's grand tour through Africa is a timely reminder that other potential challenges to America's national interests continue to loom, even if we might not always be paying them the heed we should.

- J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham is the author of over one hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).

In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.

© 2007 J. Peter Pham

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