China’s President, Xi Jinping, is due to start a five-day visit to Africa ahead of the sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which will gather leaders from across the continent. The first two Summits were relatively low-profile events, but the third one held in 2006 in Beijing drew leaders from 48 of Africa’s 54 countries. The summit with the most impact was that of 2009 – the fourth in the series- held in Sharm el-Sheikh in November. At that time China handed out to Africa loans adding up to a total of $5b, and 12 Chinese companies sealed contracts worth $1.9b with African governments. These were in return for commodity deals and the signing of a host of impressive contracts in the sphere of infrastructure construction by Chinese companies. The package included a deal to cultivate oil fields in Nigeria and an agreement by which China was to construct 1,315 km of railways in Ghana. Other mouth-watering deals were reached: Beijing was expected to enact zero tariffs on imports from the poorest of African countries; to waive the hopeless part of the continent’s indebtedness; to donate $73m worth of medical equipment to 30 African hospitals; to build 50 schools in Africa; and to launch 100 renewable energy projects across the continent. China was also expected to expand the program of training Africans in Chinese universities and offer free education to 5,500 undergraduate and 100 graduate students. On top of that, Beijing was to cover the tuition of 3,000 doctors, 2,000 agriculture engineers, and 1,500 teachers from Africa. It is unclear what the impending Summit would offer. One thing, however, is clear: Beijing will continue to seek more mutually beneficial economic deals with Africa. The deals will be guided by one philosophy: seeking raw material to fuel its booming economy, while pouring investment into Africa.
The debate is out there as to whether the Chinese flirtation with Africa is anything different from Western exploitation of the African continent. The debate stems from the different ways in which the two (the West, led especially by the US, and China) do business with Africa. They both have geo-strategic interests. They both have first of all, economic interests. Africa is untapped, heaped with resources, mostly hydro-carbons. While the Chinese employ the ‘carrot’ strategy (economic), the US employs both the ‘carrot’ and the ‘cane’ (economic and military). This is what Asad Ismi of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor has called ‘Guns vs Trade’. There is clearly a US- China rivalry in Africa. According to Brendan O’Reilly, ‘Asia Times’ journalist both China and the US are trying to broaden and deepen their influence in Africa, with China dominating the continent economically, whereas the US is more pro-active militarily. He stresses: ‘The US has many interests in Africa, especially economic, and what we see a lot now is politics and military. Right now the US troops are in a broad swath of the African nations from Mali in the west all the way through to the Central African Republic, Ethiopia into Somalia, and there is a major US military base in Djibouti now, and since 2008 the US has established the US Africa Command to coordinate military activities in Africa.’
T certainly, there are several key differences. China is focusing more and more on the economic side, the only Chinese soldiers in Africa are there in UN peacekeeping forces, whereas the US is obviously more pro-active militarily. In 2011, for instance, there was intervention in Libya. There is lots of rhetoric about supporting human rights and good governance in Africa by US officials, including the President, Barack Obama, himself. The reality on the ground, however, is that the US is still willing to do business with some unsavory regimes when it is in their interests. China officially cares less about the local governments in African countries – a policy of non-intervention. But this is equally dangerous as they would also be prepared to do business with even predatory governments. The aforesaid notwithstanding, from the economic point of view, China’s influence is greater in Africa. The US does roughly about 85 billion dollars a year in trade with Africa; China does 200 billion dollars in trade. So China is already dominating the continent economically, an influence, which can only deepen with the impending summit.
What is more important is the increasing intensity of the Sino-US rivalry in Africa. It has several implications, most notably security implications. Let’s take one example: After “midwifing” South Sudan into existence with billions of dollars in assistance, aid, infrastructure projects, and military support, the US is never happy that China has emerged the major beneficiary of South Sudan’s oil reserves. For losing to China, it is speculated that the US and other Western powers are backing former vice president, Riek Machar, and his rebel forces against the country’s president, Salva Kiir. China, for its part, has played a conspicuous double game. Beijing has lined up behind Kiir, even as it publicly pushes both sides to find a diplomatic solution to a simmering civil war. It has provided peacekeepers as part of the U.N. mission even as it also arms Kiir’s forces with tens of millions of dollars worth of new weapons. It is rumoured that after Salva Kiir had visited China in 2012, then President Hu Jintao pledged $8 billion to build South Sudan’s infrastructure and support the oil sector. Not surprisingly, two years later, the China National Petroleum Corporation, with a 40% stake, became the largest shareholder in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company, the top oil consortium in South Sudan. This kind of double game from both sides must be worrying to Africa.
It is against this background that African leaders must seek more mutually beneficial deals with either the US or China, noting that each has a specific interest and has lined up strategies for the attainment of goals. Nothing will stop them (the US and China) from being at each other’s throat in the quest to conquer Africa. There is much information warfare, for instance from the US against China in Africa. There are also offers that assure Africa of its security – from the Africa Crisis Response Initiative (ACRI), etc., to the African Command (AFRICOM). China, on its part, tries to undo the US by offering cheap deals and creating counter institutions like the formation of the BRICS and the enticing BRICS Bank. African leaders need to know that the untapped wealth or resources of Africa, the huge population, and other potentials should form a basis for equity in negotiations. The Summits are many: EU-Africa Summits; Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC); and lately, the Obama-introduced US-Africa Summit. These cannot be [platforms for donations. They should be platforms for mutually beneficial dialogue.