China Power

Welcome The Dragon?

It’s hard not to be sceptical about China’s role in Africa. Especially when Zanu-PF is so happy about it.

Not exactly known for being in touch with the best needs of its people, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party was yesterday nonetheless fulsome in its praise for China’s role in Africa.

Zanu-PF National Chairman Simon Khaya-Moyo told Xinhua that China’s relations with Africa were founded on mutual trust (translation: ‘they don’t ask us any questions, so we don’t have to tell any lies) and a win-win situation.

It’s one of the big questions hanging over China’s foreign policy—is its no strings attached approach, so beloved of some of the continent’s malefactors, really good for Africans? It’s a question that matters more every year as China’s involvement there continues to grow.

In 1950, the volume of Sino-African trade was valued at just $12m. By 2000, two-way trade had risen to $10 billion, but by 2008 it had soared to $106 billion; in 2007, China financed as much in infrastructure as all the G8 countries combined.

China’s interest in Africa is largely two-fold—it craves resources for its rapid economic development, and also hopes/expects that its investments will be remembered when it comes, for example, to diplomatic issues such as whether to officially recognise Taiwan (Liberia switched recognition in 2003, Senegal was persuaded in 2005 and Chad in 2006).

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The implications of such soft power (outlined well in Joshua Kurlantzick’s book ‘Charm Offensive’) has come in for a lot of debate, and indeed criticism in the West. Critics point, for example, to the case of Angola (which is covered by Kurlantzick), where in 2002 its deeply corrupt elite rulers laid down weapons to pave the way for competitive elections. The International Monetary Fund stepped in to try to press the government to agree to provisions that would ensure that aid set to flow to the country was spent properly.

And, by early 2005, Kurlantzick writes the IMF seemed on the verge of agreeing to a deal. But the Angolan government suddenly pulled out—it had been offered a $6 billion package from China with no accountability conditions.

The dangers of such an approach, however attractive to the Angolan government, are clear in a country where at one point an estimated third of the state’s revenue was going missing. And this case is by no means the only one cited. China, of course, maintains it is simply following its policy of non-interference in other states’ internal matters. Critics, with considerable justification, suggest this is nonsense. After all, surely effectively propping up corrupt regimes sponging off their people could be considered influencing country’s domestic policy.

All this said, I’m keen to read a recent book by Deborah Brautigam, a long-time watcher of China-Africa relations, called ‘The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa’, which has had some good reviews and appears to challenge some of the conventional wisdom on both sides of the argument.