MAC: Mines and Communities


Published by MAC on 2006-05-28


by Antoaneta Bezlova, BEIJING (IPS)

28th May 2006

China is becoming a force to reckon with on the African continent. The world's most populous country is busy building railways and roads in Angola, Nigeria and Kenya, revving up trade volumes with South Africa and Zambia and, most of all, guzzling up the continent's rich reserves of oil and minerals.

Increasingly too, Beijing is courting resource-rich countries, like Sudan and Zimbabwe, that have been marginalised in recent years by the West, and forging partnerships on the strength of its non-interfering foreign policy.

China has refused to link its development aid and investment programme in Africa to demands for improved human rights and democracy, as advocated by the West.

That countering the United States' geopolitical clout in Africa is at the heart of Beijing's efforts, may be gleaned from the fact that recent news of resumption of diplomatic relations between Libya and the U.S. created unease among Chinese commentators..

The two countries have not had full ties for more than 25 years, but relations significantly improved after Libya decided in December 2003 to give up its nuclear weapons programme. Last week, the Bush administration announced it would open an embassy in Tripoli and drop Libya from its list of nations that sponsor terrorism..

U.S. officials were frank in expressing their hopes that the move will encourage Libya to further open its underdeveloped oil industry, which is potentially one of the world's largest. Libya's oil reserves are reported to rank among the top ten worldwide.

Nervousness about this step forward for the U.S. in the oil-rich country was palpable in some of the opinions published in the Chinese press.

One of Beijing's dailies, the Xinjingbao, ran a signed opinion on May 21 portraying Libya's leader Muammar Qaddafi as a former "strong man" who in the past dared say "no" to the West, before noting that his ''petroleum nationalism of early years has now been replaced by a mere pragmatism''.

''Obviously, Qaddafi wants to use his country's wealth of oil to win the full recognition of the West and be accepted as part of its energy security framework,'' author Ai Cao said.

The official China Daily saw U.S.-Libya rapprochement as a potential impediment to China's own aggressive push to expand its influence in Africa.

Yuan Peng, a researcher with the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, argued that after years of neglect of this ''strategic vacuum area'', Washington has come to realise the importance of a fresh start with Africa.

"Both security interests and oil interests (in the restoration of U.S.-Libyan diplomatic ties) are at the service of a grander strategic goal -- overhauling the U.S. African strategy," Yuan wrote in the China Daily.

''Will a chain reaction in African-U.S. relations be triggered off by the U.S. increasing strategic input in the continent? This is a subject worth closely watching and following,'' he concluded.

The U.S.-Libyan rapprochement comes at a time when Beijing's clout in Africa is rising.

A foray of recent visits to Africa by Chinese President Hu Jintao and foreign minister Li Zhaoxing were aimed at reinforcing perceptions of China as a non-western and non-colonial emerging superpower, eager to expand its scope of influence by generous packages of aid, ample economic contracts and commitment to diplomatic neutrality.

Diplomacy has been backed by a steady wave of investment in rebuilding and expanding infrastructure in the impoverished continent.

On Monday, China pledged a loan of one billion US dollars to oil-rich Nigeria to help it repair its dilapidated railway system. Last week saw another infrastructure deal clinched between China and Algeria, also an important African oil producer. China's Citic Group and China Railway Construction Group fended off rival tenders from European and U.S. firms to build almost half of Algeria's 1,216km East-West highway.

Last year China offered Angola a two billion dollar soft infrastructure loan in order to win a contract to develop an offshore oilfield, which India was also bidding for. In addition to bilateral donations, Beijing has also pledged 100 million dollars to the Asian Development Fund and the Africa Development Fund.

Beijing has termed its double-pronged strategy of winning political friends and securing long-term supplies of natural resources on the continent as the new 'win-win' concept of partnership with Africa.

''China plans to establish and develop a 'new type of strategic partnership with Africa characterised by equality and mutual trust on the political front, cooperation conducted on the basis of 'win-win' economics with reinforced cultural exchanges,'' said a document released in the Malian capital, Bamako in January, at the end of Li Zhaoxing's visit there.

Since 2000, Chinese trade with Africa has nearly quadrupled, reaching 39.7 billion dollars in 2005. More than 600 Chinese companies have gained a foothold on the continent. In addition, Beijing has signed more than 30 oil agreements with various African petroleum producing countries.

Nevertheless, China believes the time to establish its presence firmly in the continent is limited. Chinese experts predict the next five to eight years will be a golden time for Chinese companies to invest in Africa.

''Africa has become a new focus for global investors, and Chinese companies will be presented with huge business opportunities if they enter the market early,'' Chi Changsheng, an expert with the National Development and Research Commission, China's top planning body, told a forum on Chinese investment in Africa, which opened in the capital this week.

But Beijing's quest to secure energy supplies and diplomatic support has also led it into partnerships with some unsavoury African governments. Sudan, whose regime has been accused of genocide in the Darfur region, is currently China's largest overseas production base. Zimbabwe, long criticised by the West for its human rights record, is another trade and military ally of China.

Touring Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya, last month, Chinese President Hu Jintao repeatedly emphasised that China would adhere to its long-standing non-interventionist policy in dealing with other countries. ''We respect the political model chosen by the African people,'' he was quoted as saying in Nairobi. (END)

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