- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 7, 2007

Is China taking over Africa in preparation for taking on Europe and the United States? That was the main subtext of a conference I attended just before Christmas in Beijing.The shops and tourist hotels were decked out in Western festive paraphernalia. “The Chinese economy is going great guns — it would be a shame if the Commies took over,” joked one delegate. But, except perhaps for South Africa, no African state is strong enough to deal equally with the neocapitalist China. On a divided, demoralized continent, Beijing can cherry-pick almost at will.

The West’s approach to Chinese expansionism has been dubbed “hedged integration”: working with the emerging superpower, but also preparing for the worst, including military threats. Pessimists argue that China’s outreach is part of an exclusionary policy, working with illiberal and rogue states. Its trade ignores all human-rights issues. This undermines Western conditionality strategies which aim to improve conditions in autocratic states, especially in Africa. China’s trade with Africa has risen fourfold in the last four years. It is now said to be $40 billion. Because its oil needs are expected to double in 15 years, China has invested in particular in Sudan, Angola and Nigeria.

Beijing involved itself in Africa for ideological reasons in the 1960s and 1970s. But this time the motivation is primarily about business, not politics. Some Western experts argue that the Chinese are now “voracious capitalists” who are generating a new scramble for Africa. This is a two-way street. China may be pushing its Africa policy hard, but African leaders, increasingly scornful of Western conditionality, are welcoming the far less judgmental Chinese way of doing business.

Forget about Western campaigns about “making poverty history”; instead “make lecturing African leaders history.” Western aid hasn’t worked. Giving more aid to Africa is like telling an alcoholic he needs a stiff drink to help kick his addiction.

What Africa needs is not liberal kindness but investment by business. But at present only very big Western companies — and the Chinese — take the risk. After more than a trillion dollars of Western aid, many African citizens are poorer than ever. There is simply no correlation between aid and economic growth. Africans don’t need to be told that aid merely saps initiative. Africa, like any other region, wants to finance its recovery though its own resources and through direct foreign investment. But annual capital flight roughly equals aid inflows; every year Africa’s brightest talents leave, while tens of thousands of foreign “experts” briefly and often clumsily replace them. Debt relief will help, but more important is the curtailment of European and American domestic protectionism — even though the West preaches free trade to Africa (and China).

During the visit of 40 African heads of state to Beijing in November, African leaders were thrilled that China wanted to talk about trade, investment and brotherhood rather than, to quote China-watcher Lindsey Hilsum, “pesky subjects Western leaders like to bring up like human rights, good governance, corruption, genocide and all that.”

China’s support for Sudan over Darfur and for Robert Mugabe’s regime has been lambasted in the Western media. Beijing has supplied large arms shipments to Sudan and Zimbabwe — though it still lags behind the Western arms deals on the continent. China has also been castigated for dumping cheap goods on Africa. This is particularly true of textiles and clothing. Beijing has also been criticized for bringing its own workers and displacing African employment on major construction projects.

Nevertheless, African leaders are generally much happier to deal with the Chinese. President Festus Mogae of Botswana admitted: “I find that the Chinese treat us as equals. The West treats us as former subjects.” Because the Chinese are not imposing any ideology, it’s willing buyer, willing seller. Above all, the phenomenal growth rates in China and the fact that hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty make an attractive model for Africans. China’s experience suggests that the removal of poverty must precede the introduction of democracy. China is effectively building on its soft-power model. Beijing has provided iconic infrastructural projects, from new parliaments to football stadiums.

Nor does China import an army of fat-cat “expats” with their families. Chinese workers usually live in austere accommodations and work hard for long hours and at salaries much lower than those of Western personnel. Instead of a triangular zero-sum relationship of the West and China contending for African goodwill (and oil), there are many ways of cooperating. But first the West needs to escape from the instinctive notion that its African polices are progressive, while Chinese actions are negative and harmful.

Africa needs trade, not aid. And China, for all its immediate self-interest, is providing just that. More Chinese live in Nigeria now than Britons during the height of the empire. Africa is not attractive to European settlers any more. If China’s energy shortage and population surplus can help rebuild a largely derelict continent, then Beijing should be applauded. While the European Union views Africa as a burden, China sees a market. Despite the dangers of a new imperialism, China might still provide an opportunity for Africa which Europe and the United States have simply failed to deliver.

Paul Moorcraft is the director of the Centre for Foreign Policy Analysis in London.

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