- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

For Chinese President Hu Jintao, the United States was only the first stop on a five-country tour. Mr. Hu’s next four stops — Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya — validate concerns that Beijing is engaged in a new geopolitical “Great Game” with the United States for access to natural resources. China’s expanding footprint in Africa entails more than competition for U.S. firms, however. China’s particularly amoral trade policy runs contrary to U.S. standards and threatens to undercut U.S. efforts to promote democracy and good governance in Africa. The biggest concern is not that China will compete with the United States for control of African natural resources, but that Chinese companies, which are government-subsidized, will be able to outbid U.S. companies, and that China, which ignores ethical considerations of the regimes it deals with, will undercut U.S. and European efforts to bring political reforms to African countries.

The recently inked $4 billion deal that would give China first shot at oil exploration in four sites in Nigeria is a manifestation of both concerns. Nigeria is a young democracy, and Washington has been pushing for greater transparency in the country’s energy sector — an effort that the new Chinese deal may undermine. Along with financing infrastructure improvements, China purchased control of an oil refinery that will, according to estimates, lose money. Two of the sites are located in a hotbed of rebel activity, where oil theft is rampant. For its operations in the region, Royal Dutch Shell contracted work to companies run by rebel leaders, according to the Financial Times, which is one way companies have to pay off the militants. For Shell, the report continued, “corporate policies” may force the company to close up those operations. The price of access along with the cost of operating in the region make the project unappealing to private companies, but that limitation is moot for state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation.

The United States has made the prospect of trade and economic aid an incentive for African countries to pursue democratic and humanitarian reform efforts. The African Growth and Opportunity Act, which opens up access to U.S. markets, requires countries to establish or show progress in several areas, including the rule of law, human rights, reduction of graft and improved access to education. China has never required these challenging commitments. China asks only that countries recognize the People’s Republic of China, and not Taiwan, as the only China. Under the precedent that Beijing has set, countries that are not inclined to work to meet U.S. standards can be increasingly confident that if they turn their backs on the Western powers, China will still be a willing partner and source of investment.

Over recent history, these have been the kinds of preconditions that the United States has been able to impose around the world. But with the rise of Chinese power and aggression, we may no longer have the muscle to impose such human-rights standards in mineral-rich Third World countries. If we continue to hold our trade policy to such high standards, we risk leaving China in a position to take greater control of oil assets, matching its increasing demand, at the expense of U.S. access. Hard and ugly policy choices are now looming in our very near future.

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