After years of intermittent engagement, China’s 50-year relationship with the African continent has accelerated recently, with discussions on issues including energy, security and trade taking center stage. Over the past several years, Beijing’s Communist government has invested billions of dollars in African projects, gaining favor with a number of fledgling governments.
This change has occurred as Western influence has steadily declined, the result of inconsistent and often times ineffective policies related to important African concerns, such as poverty, disease, corruption and infrastructure development. The disjointed Western response to critical African needs has pushed the continent closer to China, providing a unique opportunity for Chinese President Hu Jintao to become Africa’s newest savior.
Using this emerging relationship to its strategic advantage, Beijing’s leadership has increased multilevel dialogue on political, economic and security issues. Propelled by its need to secure oil, natural gas and mineral resources to maintain its double-digit economic growth, China has become Africa’s third-largest trading partner, behind only France and the United States. Initiatives such as the Asian-African Strategic Partnership established to improve investment opportunities between Asia and Africa, the annual China-Africa Co-operation Forum and frequent trips by high-level Chinese officials to resource-rich countries such as South Africa and Nigeria have bolstered the China-Africa relationship. China-Africa trade, which stood at roughly $11 billion in 2000, has ballooned to more than $55 billion in 2006 and is expected to top $100 billion by 2009. China has also made significant inroads on the continent by forgiving large amounts of African debt, building roads, schools, hospitals and railways and pledging nearly $8 billion in loans and investments.
But as the China-Africa relationship has matured, serious questions have also begun to surface regarding Beijing’s treatment of the continent’s population and resources. Beijing’s firm support of the brutal Sudanese government in the face of proven human-rights violations in Darfur has soured China’s reputation, especially in light of revelations last week that Chinese-supplied aircraft were used to attack refugees. Chinese dumping practices, which are contrary to World Trade Organization rules, have continued unabated, threatening indigenous African industries and entire labor markets. Beijing’s policy of staying out of the internal politics of countries it conducts business with has come under fire from international human-rights groups.
Even more troubling, Chinese officials have shown a historical tendency to work with Islamist governments in order to negotiate favorable agreements to meet their immediate and long-term economic needs and to counter U.S. interests, especially in the Middle East. The same strategy has been employed in Africa, where lucrative arms and energy deals have seen China gain political capital in places like Sudan, Algeria and Libya.
All of this has occurred as U.S. influence on the continent has diminished, due in part to its involvement in the Middle East. This has allowed China to make substantial progress, nurturing deep economic, political and defense ties. Making matters worse for Washington, Beijing’s progress comes as disagreements over China’s military modernization, currency revaluation, trade practices and extra-regional aspirations have intensified.
The time has come for Washington to raise its profile in Africa. This can be accomplished by expanding independent pledges of humanitarian aid, enhancing participation in the existing U.N. relief and security apparatus, increasing high-level diplomatic contacts and implementing a comprehensive economic stimulation package which includes low-cost loans, grants, infrastructure development and corporate partnerships. In essence, a multi-faceted, U.S.-sponsored “African Marshall Plan” should be pursued to counter increased Chinese involvement.
The alternative to such a policy for the United States is obvious — China will continue to foster deep strategic relationships with African countries resulting in possible restricted U.S. access to emerging energy and trade markets. A worst-case scenario could see a possessive-minded China heavily influencing Africa on economic, political and military issues, resulting in decisions being made to benefit China exclusively at the expense of U.S. regional interests.
For their part, African leaders should pursue in earnest the development of a regional strategy that protects and secures the long-term goals of the African people, their civilization and rich culture. The negotiation of favorable deals with Beijing to alleviate many of the ills that plague the continent such as poverty and HIV/AIDS should be a top priority. At the same time, Africa will need to assess its relationship with China very carefully, with the ultimate aim of protecting valuable natural resources from exploitation while holding China accountable for its actions on the continent.
In the end, unwavering solidarity among African countries will be necessary to ensure continuous and measurable progress which will lead to a better life for all of Africa’s population.
Fred Stakelbeck is director of the Security and Democracy in Asia Project for the Center for Security Policy.