Chinafrica (24) Watching for PRC Influence in Africa
Story... PRC contemplating political action to protect assets...
[Photo: The bauxite factory of Guinea's largest mining firm, Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinee (CBG), at Kamsar, a town north of the capital Conakry. Photo AFP]
Business interests force China to political action in Africa
Published: 3 November 2009 17:30 | Changed: 3 November 2009 17:35
It is becoming increasingly difficult for China to stay politically neutral in Africa as its economic interests grow.
By Pauline Bax and Mark Schenkel
As night falls over Conakry, the capital of Guinea, the street lights only come on in the neighbourhood of Manquepas (which translated means ‘no lack’). In the other neighbourhoods, children do their homework by the candlelight of a petroleum lamp. Night watchmen read the Koran in the light from the sign for a petrol station. Grocers light their shop fronts with a neon light fed by a battery.
But in future, say the Chinese, everything will be different. The whole capital of Guinea will have electricity. Taxi drivers will no longer have to take six passengers at once in their rickety Peugeots, the capital will have a metro system. There will be flood control dams, new government offices, a fleet of passenger aircraft. Guinea will finally become modern, or so the Chinese promise. In exchange for that, all it has to do is supply raw materials like bauxite, oil and iron ore to China.
China is saving the developing countries, according even to the military junta in power in Guinea. On 9 October the Guinean minister of mining, Mohamed Thiam, announced the junta is on the verge of signing a treaty with China. It involves an investment plan worth 7 billion US dollars – one of the largest raw materials deals in Africa.
Shortly before the news was announced, soldiers in the African country shot dead 157 demonstrators. Foreign criticism of this massacre and the threats of sanctions that followed put the military rulers under such pressure that the treaty was used in order to show the population that Guinea has no need for the West whatsoever.
But the situation in Guinea is precarious. Observers say that ethnic tensions between factions in the military could result in a war that will also have serious consequences for neighbouring countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia.
A more honest partner
The instability in Guinea shows that it is becoming increasingly difficult for China to maintain its traditional policy of political and diplomatic non-intervention in Africa, says Mohamed Jalloh on the telephone from Dakar, Senegal. He is an analyst there for the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group. China has invested so much in Africa in the past years that it can no longer avoid taking a more active diplomatic role, says Jalloh. “Not because China is suddenly more concerned about human rights or democracy, but out of enlightened self-interest. China benefits from a minimum level of stability in Africa, in order to secure the raw materials required for its rapidly growing economy.”
The Chinese presence in Africa extends beyond the recent hunt for raw materials. In the1960s the communist regime presented itself as a leader of the developing countries from the idea that Africa and China were similar and had the same opponents. Beijing extended no-interest loans and provided economic aid to about twenty African countries, including Guinea. Unlike the West, it refrained from direct political interference however.
Many Africans feel that China is a more honest partner than the rich countries, which they feel are simply meddlesome. “I think it would be a good thing if African countries could do business with China on the basis of equality," says Baffour Ankomah, editor-in-chief of the weekly New African. “After years of Western involvement, Africa is now like a woman being pursued by two suitors. It can now itself choose which of the two men makes her happiest.”
But according to Western governments and human rights organisations, China can no longer stand aloof from corruption, election fraud and repression in those African countries where it has its foot in the door. The US Department of State said in a reaction to the negotiations between China and Guinea it was concerned. “We think it is important to be alert to human rights in countries with which you do business,” said a spokesperson.
Chinese UN peace-keepers in Sudan
At the same time China is realising that stability is important for securing its economic interests. “Everything seems to indicate that China is less ready to take risks,” wrote analyst Philippe de Pontet in the weekly African Business. “Chinese companies have not yet withdrawn from unstable countries, but they have clearly taken a more reticent attitude.”
The unrest in Guinea also threatens a neighbouring country like Liberia – where China invested 2.6 billion dollars this year in iron ore mines, the largest foreign investment in Liberia’s history.
The most prominent change to China’s Africa policy of the past years took place in Sudan. For years human rights activists have condemned Beijing for supplying arms to the regime in Khartoum, which is held responsible for the genocide in Darfur. Sudan supplies oil to China. In 2007, Beijing voted in favour of a peace-keeping mission in Darfur led by the United Nations and the African Union, a move that surprised many. China even sent UN peace-keepers. The new approach reportedly was entirely due to the Olympic Games in Beijing. China was in danger of reputation damage when celebrities like American actress Mia Farrow dubbed the games the ‘Genocide Olympics’.
Critics see the sending of peace-keepers as a small sacrifice in order to be able to continue China’s policy in Sudan. Beijing still supports African countries in their opposition to the international arrest warrant for Sudanese president Bashir. But according to Jalloh of the Crisis Group, the Sudan case shows that China more often feels compelled to take on responsibility. “It is a start.”
Observers take a similar view of China’s military involvement elsewhere in Africa. Beijing sends an estimated sixteen hundred peace-keepers – more than four other permanent members of the UN Security Council. Only a few dozen US peace-keepers operate throughout Africa. Good for China’s reputation and an exercise for the People’s Liberation Army, or good for stability in Africa? Both, perhaps. Just like the three Chinese frigates that fight piracy off the coast of Somalia.
Behind the scenes
These days Chinese ambassadors from Liberia to South Africa encourage their fellow countrymen to learn the local language, in order to prevent tensions with local workers. In Zambia local mine workers have already rebelled against the tough Chinese working conditions and against being elbowed out by Chinese labourers. In an interview with the Financial Times last year the ambassador to South Africa tried to soften the impression that China is keeping Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe in power. “We are not happy with what is happening in Zimbabwe,” said Zhong Jianhua. He felt that the Western condemnation of Mugabe only had an "adverse" effect however.
Critics say this is all for show. Behind the scenes the negotiations on economic cooperation are simply going ahead.
In Guinea the Chinese government explicitly denied involvement in the controversial raw materials deal. Huo Zhengde, ambassador in Conakry, told French radio station RFI a week and a half ago that Beijing does not play a role “in any way whatsoever.” According to the magazine Africa Confidential, there was concern when Guinea suddenly publicly announced the negotiations that had been secret until then. China feared a diplomatic situation like that which arose earlier concerning Sudan, the magazine writes.
Ambassador Zhengde stressed that the talks with the junta are being held by the China Investment Fund (CIF) from Hong Kong – a private company. This is true on paper, but in practice it emerges that the CIF is intertwined with the Chinese government in many aspects. China often uses these kinds of constructions, whereby Beijing can deny that it is involved in controversial deals but in fact remains in control.
Jalloh wonders how long China can maintain this aloof approach. “If Guinea collapses, China will once again have to participate in a UN mission to secure its investments in the country.” Ankomah of the New African finds the Western concern about China’s political indifference hypocritical. Moreover he hopes that China will be less neutral than it seems. “Beijing now has interests in Guinea. Who knows, behind the scenes China might even persuade the junta to reform.”