China rolled out the red carpet for 48 African leaders this past week, hosting a three-day summit to commemorate fifty years of diplomatic relations between China and Africa. (I’m guessing this actually comemorates relations between a newly independent Ghana and China, but it’s always hard to know precisely what’s being comemorated at these things.) Beijing evidently received a major facelift for the event, filling streets with huge billboards of African wildlife and ordering factories to shut, hoping to clear the air for the visiting dignitaries – BBC describes the preparation as a dress rehearsal for the Olympics.
Afrophile bloggers and the international press have been focused on the relationship between Africa and China for the past year, watching with fascination and some alarm as China forgives African debt, imports natural resources and invests on the continent. China’s trade with Africa has quintupled since 2000 and looks to double again by the end of this decade. While government policy in the US and the EU has focused on debt relief and health funding, Chinese investment has been broadbased and widespread and has included investment in countries most western powers won’t engage with, like Angola and Sudan.
Former Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala sees the “moral hazard” of engaging with a country that is less worried about human rights records than about access to raw materials. (She doesn’t point out – but I will – that the US has a long history of engagement with nations rich on oil and poor on human rights records, like Saudi Arabia.) But she observes that China may have solutions to African problems that the US and EU can’t offfer.
China knows what it means to be poor, and has evolved a successful wealth creation formula that it is willing to share with African countries.
Africa’s need for infrastructure investments – estimated at $20bn a year for the next decade – is understood and supported by China.
When I asked the Chinese how we could get a growth rate of 10%, like theirs, their answer was simple.
Infrastructure – infrastructure and discipline.
China is thus willing to invest in railways, roads, ports and rural telephony in various African countries as part of its winning formula for economic development.
She goes on to point out that most of Africa’s traditional partners haven’t been willing to make these large infrastructure investments, and suggests that China’s “fresh viewpoint” may force the US and the EU to compete for Africa’s attention.
But it’s clear that China’s involvement in Africa isn’t purely about business or philanthropy – politics are on the table, too. As Jen Brea, watching the events from China, points out, there are now only five African countries that recognize Taiwan – the rest have cut ties with the island in support of China’s “One China” policy. And Chinese involvement in African politics has included threats of withdrawing investment in Zambia if the opposition won an election, and heel-dragging in the UN on the issue of bringing troops to Darfur to stop the killing.
It’s the issue of Darfur which brings some of the ironies of last week’s meeting into sharp relief. This week, some African leaders will travel to Kenya to discuss targets for fossil-fuel emissions to mitigate climate change. Research suggests that Africa – which emits the least CO2 per capita of any continent – is already suffering from the effects of climate change. The interlocking conflicts in Sudan, Chad, CAR and the horn of Africa are exacerbated by increasing desertification, which forces more people to try to eke a living from less arable and grazeable land.
On the one hand, China’s expansion is going to increase fossil fuel usage in the short term – China’s investments in Sudan and Angola are directly linked to their ample oil supplies – which will likely exacerbate environmental problems the continent is already facing. On the other hand, experts like Claudia Ringler, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, suggest that widespread infrastructure building, especially dam building, could help African nations cope with environmental challenges to agriculture. And who better to ask for help than the folks behind the Three Gorges Dam?
Chippla’s post on the summit is a must-read. He makes the argument that China is signalling that it sees itself as a partner to African nations, not a dominant partner or a guardian figure, as western governments sometimes portray themselves.