Abandoned by European colonists, used as pawns by the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War, and ignored for the last decade and a half, Africa nations are back in favor for engagement because of Chinese involvement in that continent. Furthering Chinese interests in Africa, President Hu Jintao traveled on an eight nation tour where he propped up Sudan in the face of international condemnation of that regime, announced grants, doubled scholarships, reviewed Chinese projects, and promised more trade. Sure enough, the US now plans to create a regional command center to oversee US military actions on the continent but without plans for military deployment.
At the base of it all, has been sustained and low key Chinese engagement in Africa. Importing oil and natural resources from African nations, China has assiduously built a solid trade pattern to sell its wares. But is has done more. It has built stadiums, railways, power lines, dams, and roads through grants and aid money. It has deployed doctors, engineers, teachers, and scientists on the ground in many nations to not look like a colonial power sucking out the fruits of the land but also shower benefits. Is this the face of new age colonialism?
China disdainfully rejects such suggestion. Making the keynote address at Pretoria University, Hu said that China is "most strongly opposed to colonialism, oppression and slavery of all manifestations" and that his nation "has never imposed its will or unequal practices on other countries." Promising never to "do anything harmful to the interests of Africa and its people," Hu seemed to respond to South African President Thabo Mbeki's concerns that Beijing will not "replicate the historic colonial economic relationship." Like all Africans, Mbeki wanted to assurance that China will not use Africa as "source of raw materials and a market for goods manufactured" in China. While the trade gap between the two was 1:4 in China's favor, Hu did not squeamish asking for "cooperation" using their "extensive common ground" to "urge developed countries to deliver their commitments of improving market access, increasing aid and debt relief and take effective steps to help African peoples resolve their difficulties."
Responding to complaints from South African trade unions, Pretoria forced restrictions on textile imports for two years so domestic industry was not wiped out. The two nations signed several trade agreements that allow export of fruit from South Africa, investment from Beijing in energy and mining sectors. China is already involved in many mining operations including platinum, nickel, and chrome ore. Despite the set of trade agreements signed by the two sides, the score board was that Pretoria exported USD 1.2 billion and imported USD 4.35 billion worth. South Africans hope that Hu will declare a drop in tariff rates and make grants to heritage foundations that will preserve fossils and non-governmental organizations that will help the government balance economic growth. Since 1998 when it established relations with Pretoria, China has quickly grown to be South Africa's second-largest import trading partner in 2005 and eighth-largest export partner. Both nations have worked closely on international forum such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Earlier in sparsely populated, mineral-rich desert Namibia, Hu had promised development aid, interest-free loan, and money for schools. As the Namibia-China Mineral Resources Investment and Development Corp. celebrated Hu's visit and promising influx of Chinese investments and tourists, human rights groups harshly criticized the hyped-out visit. Accusing China of using inter-free loans and support of repressive regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe, the National Society of Human Rights in Namibia was quoted accusing Chinese companies of following "slave-like and exploitative labor practices" and concerns among Namibian consumers of "import and dumping of cheap and unreliable Chinese products." In fact, Hu cancelled plans to launch a USD 200 million smelter at a Chinese-owned Zambian copper mine because of miners' anger at working conditions. Also 1000 laid off workers of the Zambia China Mulungushi Textiles factory that produced 17 million meters of fabric a year and won international awards, protested Hu's visit accusing his nation of closing the factory to allow subsidized textile factories at home. Mulungushi was often touted as China's genuine interest in Africa citing investment in the factory that supported the cotton growers of Kabwe region of Northern Zambia.
But China often deflects such accusation remind that it actively backed Namibians fight against South Africa to become a free country in 1990. However, many suspect that the support was driven by desire to access Namibia's diamonds and minerals such as uranium, zinc and cobalt and take advantage of the low population of 2 million people. Already, there is widespread dissent over the number of Chinese present in this African nation. While official sources say that the number is 2,300, independent sources say that the number is more in the tens of thousands. Chinese are into construction, often undercutting local companies. Chinese sell vegetables. But no one knows how they all got there and who gave them residency rights. Opposition party members in Zambia accuse the Chinese of a "strategic plan" that involves slowly moving its population to Africa to accommodate its large population at home.
China-Zambia Bilateral trade is valued at USD 240 million or 103 per cent above the previous year's trade and the new economic cooperation zone in Copperbelt province has a promise of creating 60,000 mining jobs with a USD 800 million Chinese investment.
Brushing aside criticism from human rights groups over gross human rights violations in Sudan, Hu met President Omar al-Bashir with only Sudanese and Chinese journalists witnessing the meeting. Not bringing up Darfur in his meeting, Hu told an exasperated world that a solution to Darfur "needs to respect the sovereignty of Sudan and based on dialogue." While he praised the UN and African Union (AU) roles, he also counseled patience and gave every indication that his nation will use its veto power in the UN to stop any resolution on Sudan to protect its investments there. China is the main investor in Sudan and a key trading partner buying up 80 per cent of its crude and selling it destructive weapons used by the military to break ceasefire agreements. China also objects to UN plans to take over peacekeeping duties from an AU force that has been described as under-staffed, under-armed, and ill-equipped to deal with ground realities. Sudan's economy is growing at a breath-taking 10% mainly due to its relationship with China which came to the nation when western companies pulled out in the 80s and 90s when civil war broke out. Since then, China financed a 1,600 kilometer pipeline, to take oil from the south to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
In Nigeria, the government awarded a USD 1.46 billion contract to two Chinese companies to build a massive hydro-electric project in the north east and "funded under a bilateral arrangement" where Beijing has agreed to "undertake major infrastructural projects." In other words, China is financing this dam and has awarded the contracts to itself much like how the U.S. awarded contracts to its own companies under the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. The hydro-electric project will generate 2,600 megawatts of electricity.
Hu is visiting Cameroon, Liberia, Sudan, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, and the Seychelles before heading home. As part of its USD 5 billion commitment to Africa, China has also decided to write of debts owned by 33 African nations. The 2004 saw Chinese exports to Africa grow by 36 per cent year on year to USD 13.82 billion and imports rose 81 per cent to USD 15.65 billion. By 2005, the trade grew to USD 40 billion and in 2006 trade grew by 40% to reach USD 55.5 billion and aims to reach USD 100 billion by 2010. Most of Chinese imports are raw materials and oil. Currently, Africa supplies a third of China's crude oil imports.
With current trade levels of USD 91 billion, the US fears the increased Beijing activity in the region and particularly increased competition for energy resources. Accompanying this fear, is a string of criticism from Western human rights groups that castigate Beijing of unfettered financing of repressive regimes to gain access to energy. Western governments often fashion themselves to reciprocal strings to their investment and China's entry challenging this game plan is upsetting well laid out plans of the West.
Washington has now found new interest in Africa. It announced that it is in the process of consulting 53 nations in Africa "at the diplomatic levels and through military channels" to set up a regional command center to oversee military actions on the continent. The focus of Washington's attention is "to reduce conflict, to improve the security environment, to defeat or preclude the development of terrorists or terrorist networks, and support in crisis response." This new venture seems to a reorganization of three different command centers into one that is to be located at an undecided location on the continent.
Furthering its thrust, military chiefs of nine African nations promised to work with the US to prevent the spread of terrorism in the Sahara desert region. The Trans-Sahara Partnership comprising of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal with borders or including parts of the Sahara desert have agreed to work with the US receiving advice and assistance from Washington. The U.S. spends more than $80 million a year in counterterrorism measures in the countries, including providing military training, supplying arms and sharing intelligence. The U.S. fears that terrorists may use the open and unpopulated spaces in the desert region with porous borders to consolidate their operations.