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China branches out

Beijing's aggressive courting of African states is a direct challenge to U.S. interests.

April 13, 2006|Raymond W. Copson | RAYMOND W. COPSON recently retired from the Congressional Research Service, where he specialized on Africa.

WHEN PRESIDENT Bush meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao on April 20, will he raise the issue of China's role in Africa? He should. China's rising and underreported influence in Africa is posing a direct challenge to American influence and undermining U.S. policy.

At the U.N. Security Council, China -- with Russia and Qatar -- is reportedly discouraging talk of U.S.-backed sanctions targeted against Sudanese officials responsible for the carnage in Darfur. Beijing also is providing food aid directly to the government of Zimbabwe -- notorious for doling out food to supporters while letting suspected political opponents go hungry -- instead of following Washington's example of channeling food aid directly to Zimbabwe's people through international and nongovernmental organizations.

In February, Hu warmly welcomed Faure Gnassingbe, the new Togo strongman, to Beijing, and the two signed a China-Togo cooperation agreement. The United States keeps Gnassingbe at arm's length as it presses for long-needed reforms.

The Chinese have been important actors on the continent since the 1960s, but the scale of their current involvement is unprecedented. "All across Africa today," according to a Council on Foreign Relations report in January, "China is acquiring control of natural resource assets, outbidding Western contractors on major infrastructure projects and providing soft loans and other incentives to bolster its competitive advantage." China's trade with Africa is soaring -- up by well over a third in the first 11 months of 2005 alone. Chinese businesspeople are seen everywhere, and in country after country, Africans are riding Chinese motorcycles and wearing Chinese-manufactured jeans and jewelry.

A main driver in the relationship is China's insatiable need for energy. Its oil imports are surging, and African oil now accounts for nearly 30% of the total. The China National Petroleum Corp. has invested billions of dollars to take control of Sudan's oil production, estimated at 150,000 barrels per day and growing. Another Chinese oil company agreed in January 2006 to pay $2.3 billion for a major stake in a Nigerian oil field.

Africa is certainly benefiting. China's demand for resources has driven up prices, propelling significant GDP gains in many countries. China has educated thousands of African university students, and it sends Africa hundreds of doctors and advisors each year. Chinese firms are building roads, rehabilitating infrastructure and bringing cellphone service to places that land lines never reached.

But there is a downside. With China available as a partner, authoritarian rulers from Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe to Sudan's Omar Hassan Bashir can turn their backs when the West demands improvements in governance and human rights. With a $2-billion credit from China, Angola need not concern itself unduly with International Monetary Fund insistence on accountability in its use of oil revenues.

China also is actively courting Mali, Mauritania and other countries participating in the Bush administration's new Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative. Nigeria, important to the U.S. as an oil supplier and West African peacemaker, agreed to enter into a "strategic partnership" with China when President Olusegun Obasanjo visited Beijing in April 2005; Chinese companies are already rebuilding Nigeria's railways and are planning to launch a Nigerian communications satellite in 2007. In the competition for African hearts and minds -- and wallets -- China is gaining.

U.S. trade with Africa still exceeds China's. However, China's overall trade with the region is growing at a faster rate, and its exports to Africa began to exceed U.S. exports in 2003.

How then to respond to the China challenge? This question is complicated by events and policies elsewhere that undercut the U.S. stance as an advocate of transparency, human rights and democracy. China's lack of credentials in these areas makes it freer to conduct business without presuming to urge reforms on local governments.

The U.S. is not likely to go head-to-head with China in providing big loans coupled with major infrastructure projects. This is a form of "tied aid," long recognized by development experts as wasteful. Washington can certainly do a better job of showing that it too is a friend of the African people -- without giving aid and comfort to African dictators. First, by pointing out that we already help Africa in important ways.

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