Slavery; colonialism; Apartheid; Cold War manipulation; IMF Structural Adjustment; corruption of governments by Western corporations; and resource wars fought by white mercenaries: if independent African nations of the Twenty First Century choose to seek new relationships with non-Western allies, then we should not be puzzled by this development. Nevertheless, Western commentators watch with increasing concern as China’s growing political and economic influence makes it an attractive partner for African governments. With global issues now at the top of the agenda in interactions between the United States and China (Johnson 2009), the relationships crystallising between China and Africa have for some time been overlooked by the media and policymakers. Mainstream pundits who have discovered these developments often propagate a moral panic regarding China’s nefarious intent, and issue warnings of existential threat to Western interests, as ‘access to important raw materials and energy sources … [is] “locked up” by Chinese firms’ (Brookes & Shin 2006). Headlines such as, ‘Why China is trying to colonise Africa’ (Blair 2007), ‘How China's taking over Africa, and why the West should be VERY worried’ (Malone 2008), and ‘China Tightens Grip on Africa’ (2009), have appeared in conservative-leaning publications, and frame the debate as a Manichean struggle between the munificent West and an exploitative Chinese bogeyman.
I will argue that while Western hegemony in Africa is certainly being seriously challenged, necessarily conflating this with a negative result for Africa is based on an erroneously idealistic view of Western interaction with the continent. While critics attribute China’s diplomatic success to it being ‘the ally of choice for Africa's worst rulers’ (Blair 2007), in fact part of China’s attraction is ‘more than 50 years of friendly, respectful, and supportive relations [with] African countries’ (Gill & Reilly 2007). Recent criticism of Chinese activities in Africa is often accurate, and is important in helping constrain destructive behaviours, but China’s conduct isnot worse than the West’s historical and ongoing relationship with the continent, and will potentially be much more productive. China’s changing relationship with Africa is also part of a wider structural shift in the international system, which will create new centres of power and wealth over the coming decades, and may increasingly fracture the cohesiveness of ‘Western’ interests. For the United States and its traditional allies to remain globally influential in the coming century, they must comprehend some of the lessons offered by Africa’s changing disposition.
The Reality of ‘the White Man’s Burden’
By the 1980s the imposition of structural adjustment as part of aid and debt rescheduling packages was common, and despite the rhetoric of international financial agencies it had the widespread and painful impact of depressing people’s incomes, living standards, health conditions and overall social circumstances. Prices for many basic consumer staples rose, unemployment levels increased, and governments cut spending, usually hitting vital social sectors like education and health the hardest (Harsch 1993, p. 15). Ironically, in cases where this induced political liberalisation, the demands of the pro-democracy movements, ‘reflect, to a significant extent, a popular reaction against the socially painful effects of structural adjustment’ (Harsch 1993, p. 12). Subsequently, while the 1990s created an opportunity to divert resources from the global arms race to tackling Africa’s challenges, it is instead now seen as a period in which the United States disengaged from African Affairs, apart from occasional humanitarian disasters that could not be ignored (Kraxberger 2005, p. 48). The World Bank and the IMF were now empowered to alter African societies by linking aid to democratic reform (Goldsmith 2001, p. 413); though key critics like World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz have said that by reducing developing governments’ economic autonomy, policy conditionalities actually undermine democratic processes even further (Goldsmith 2001, p 417).
The worst African crisis of the 1990s was the Rwandan Genocide, in which 800,000 Rwandans were killed, by a government financially and politically supported by France, and aided by a military armed, trained and advised by France, with minimal intervention by France or other Western governments (Kroslak 2008, pp. 1-5). Following the 9/11 attacks there was renewed American interest in Africa, though this primarily involved a new militarisation of their Africa policy as part of the ‘war on terrorism’, with new strategic coordination under the umbrella of AFRICOM. Economic development and poverty alleviation has again been a lower priority, and a small number of US military allies have received a disproportionate share of recent aid (Van De Walle 2009, p. 13). Subsequent American intervention in nations like Somalia has been argued to have ‘worsened the conflict’ (Van De Walle 2009, p. 16). While the West has provided $2.3 trillion to Africa over the last five decades (for both humanitarian and military projects; to good leaders and bad) (Harman 2007), global structures of subsidies and tariffs have been maintained which force open African markets to Western goods, while disadvantaging African producers (Dowden 2005). In recent years America established the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) of 2000 to assist Africa, however, again governance reforms remained only a secondary objective, with one of the primary aid beneficiaries being authoritarian Angola (Van De Walle 2009, p. 13). Clearly then the West’s record in Africa is far from spotless.
Crouching Investor, Hidden Consequences
Today, China’s growing influence is obvious in African cities: from the huge Chinese embassy compound and Chinese-funded soccer stadium in downtown Maputo, Mozambique, to Chinese supermarkets in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Thousands of Chinese workers live in Angola, reconstructing the country after its civil war (‘Angolan “mafia targets Chinese”’ 2009), by building roads, de-mining fields, upgrading ports and rehabilitating railways (‘China tightens grip’ 2009). Angola has become China’s largest African economic collaborator (Ash 2007), and with over US$100 Billion in annual trade, China is Africa's second-biggest trading partner behind the United States (Simpson 2009). Council on Foreign Relations Africa specialist Princeton N. Lyman writes that, ‘China returns to Africa in the 21st century with not only a need for economic resources but with the cash to play the game dramatically and competitively’ (2005). But this is not a strategy of nefarious subversion, masked with altruism; China is striking the kind of equitable deals the West should have been making since the late 1800s. Chinese investments are spurring Africa’s highest-ever levels of economic growth. ‘The roads, bridges, and dams built by Chinese firms are low cost, good quality, and completed in a fraction of the time such projects usually take in Africa. China also contributes peacekeepers to UN missions across Africa’ (Hanson 2008).
Western critics, like Brookes and Shin of the conservative American Heritage Foundation, have written that America and its allies, ‘are finding that their vision of a prosperous Africa governed by democracies that respect human rights and the rule of law and that embrace free markets is being challenged by the escalating Chinese influence in Africa’ (2006). Often central to criticism of Chinese deals is their support for the dictatorships in Sudan and Zimbabwe (‘Don’t worry about killing people’ 2009; Malone 2008). This is of great concern. Indeed, most recently China extended a multi-billion dollar oil and mineral deal to Captain Moussa Camara’s tyrannical regime in Guinea, in defiance of European Union sanctions (‘China tightens grip’ 2009). While supporters argue that these relations are part of ‘an evolving partnership based on principles of non-interference and neutrality’ (Tu 2008, p. 336), critics are correct that Chinese deals with despots can help defend their legitimacy in international fora and deflect pressure for political reforms (Brookes & Shin 2006). But these critics must also recognise that singling out China in these activities is hypocritical. ‘The United States is highly selective about who we’re moral about … We support Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia—huge human-rights violators—because we have other strategic interests’ (Hanson 2008). Critics highlight that China sells arms to African states. Yes, China now accounts for over 15 percent of arms transfers to the continent (Hanson 2008). But America continues to dominate the industry, contributing 50% of African arms imports, while the United Kingdom and France still account for 10% of sales (Adusei 2009). Overall, and in contrast to Western strategies, ‘military concerns have played a remarkably small part in China’s return to the continent as a major player’ (French 2006, p. 128).
Criticisms of China’s economic strategies are also valid. Economic critics argue that Chinese officials choose which companies aid recipients must buy from, and anti-corruption crusaders complain that Chinese regulation is weak (LaFraniere & Grobler 2009). However, in 2008 United States Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State asserted that these charges are exaggerated, and that, ‘In reality, Chinese firms compete for profitable projects not only with … international firms, but also with each other’ (Hanson 2008). In addition, Africa’s culture of corruption has to a large degree been created through interaction with the West. Far from reducing corruption, some specialists argue that the liberalisation and governance measures imposed by donors only encouraged new forms of corruption (Szeftel 2000, p. 288). Because foreign capital dominated domestic economies, and limitations on bureaucracy restricted legitimate employment through the state, ‘Ruling elites learn[ed] that gate-keeping functions (trade licences, contracts, foreign exchange) bring huge rewards (far greater and with far fewer costs than legitimate business)’ (2000, p. 302). Western corporations in Africa also often undermine democracy and create conflict, rather than bolster Human Rights and transparent governance. Examples include: Shell’s operations in Nigeria, which led to pollution, population displacement, and the murder of activists in Ogoniland (‘Shell settle Nigeria deaths’ 2009); American companies in eastern Congo, who sponsored warring factions to secure access to minerals (Lobe 2003); and the Dutch firm Trafigura, which dumped toxic waste in Cote d’Ivoire and recently paid almost US$200 Million in compensation (‘Case profile: Trafigura’ 2009). While criticisms of Chinese actions in Africa are certainly valid, the portrayal of China as a bogeyman when compared to the West is far from reality.
China is taking Africa seriously. Chinese representatives meet at least one African leader a month. The 2006 China-Africa summit hosted 48 African nations, during China’s ‘Year of Africa’; and 50 African states were present in 2009. In October, China also cancelled debts owed by 32 African governments (Lee 2009). China is winning the hearts and minds of the African people, through their wallets certainly, but also through a respectful understanding that Africa is a continent with a history, and a future beyond poverty and conflict. In 2003, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao promised to support,
Rwandan President Kagame, who is currently overseeing a bold national fibre-optic-internet project, recently praised China for its engagement and criticised the West’s obsession with aid (Blendford 2009), saying that China provides, ‘what Africa needs: investment and money for governments and companies’, … [while] European and American involvement ‘has not brought Africa forward’. ‘I would prefer the Western world to invest in Africa rather than handing out development aid’ (‘China praised’ 2009).
China also recognises that there is more to Africa than oil and minerals. While India is celebrated by analysts as the mass-consumer market of the future, Africa duplicated Indian growth rates over the past decade, and has a comparable GDP per capita. Africa’s population will rival China's within a few decades, and hundreds of millions of Africans will have buying power similar to the Western middle classes (Lee 2009). This is part of a global structural shift that will occur over coming decades. Emeritus Editor of United Press International, Martin Walker, argues that the Indian Ocean has an emerging trading network of goods and investment that has the potential to create a new global economic hub. Martin calls this region ‘CHIMEA’ for China, India, the Middle East, and Africa a nexus of energy supplies and financial resources, which have an interest in developing Africa as a centre of agriculture to supply Earth’s estimated future population of nine billion people (2008, pp. 21-22). CHIMEA’s economic activity could finally integrate Africa into the global economy as both producer and consumer (Walker 2008, p. 22). Meanwhile, the West is set to fade towards the periphery, hastened by what Robert Fisk identifies as secret moves by major states, ‘to end dollar dealings for oil, moving instead to a basket of currencies including the Japanese yen and Chinese Yuan, the Euro, gold, and a new, unified currency planned for nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council’ (2009, p. 8).
Rethinking Africa: Lessons for the West
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