Faisal al Yafai
3 January 2011
The Chinese are involved in countless infrastructure projects across Africa, which the continent desperately needs; yet, their presence has caused ructions.
The baggage lounge at Addis Abeba’s Bole International Airport is filled with activity as the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Beijing arrives. Young Chinese men, casually dressed in flannel trousers and shirts, gather around the luggage belt, lifting off large suitcases and heavily wrapped boxes. A crowd of these arrivals, perhaps 50 strong, queue up together outside to be collected by a fleet of waiting minibuses.
These young men are not tourists. They live in Ethiopia, and more part of the influx of Chinese labour over the past decade that has changed the face of Africa.
In countries across the continent, Chinese communities have sprung up. Some are based around the myriad infrastructure projects that the world’s emerging superpower is implementing. Many are simply trading on a small scale, importing buckets and work tools, the low-cost essentials that power rural life on this continent.
The year 2010 was the year that China became the world’s second largest economy, overtaking its Asian neighbour Japan and prompting much soul-searching around the world over the imminent arrival of the Chinese. Yet, in Africa, the Chinese have already arrived.
Last year, trade between Africa and China topped 100 billion dollars, more than between the US and Africa, China is also the single biggest manufacturer of infrastructure on the continent. The Chinese make things, things that African nations desperately need. Roads and railways, hospitals and schools, pipes and dams; Chinese companies have built them all.
Everywhere one looks on the continent, especially in resource rich countries, China is developing extensive trade links. Oil countries take high priority. Chinese companies are active in Nigeria, the continent’s largest oil producer, as well as Angola and Sudan.
However, the copper mines in the DRC and Zambia, the iron ore mines in South Africa, and the forests in Cameroon all send their bounty to China.
“Africans [are] frustrated by western insistence on capacity building, which translated into conferences and seminars. They instead preferr China’s focus on infrastructure and tangible projects,” Julius Ole Sunkuli, Kenya’s ambassador to China, said as repeated by leaked diplomatic cables.
From one perspective, China is becoming a rich country. The shopping avenues of New York, Dubai, and Tokyo are full of well-off Chinese buying high-end goods. Yet, their government still likes to present it as a developing country, full of solidarity with the developing world.
Countries in Africa strive to emulate China’s phenomenal growth over the past decade, and China helps them achieve it, by increasing the number of African students it admits to its universities.
Education, infrastructure, immigration: all of these things are offered to Africa. No other single country can boast as much.
Yet, such prosperity comes at a price. China’s foreign relations have long been based on a principle of political “non-interference.” Good governance, one of Africa’s biggest challenges, comes a distant second to business imperatives. When China does business with unsavoury African regimes such as Zimbabwe, Chinese weapons are used against the country’s people.
The benefits that come to African governments and big business do not always trickle down to citizens. Chinese products have devastated local industries, such as the manufacturing sector in Nigeria, and Chinese companies have caused ructions elsewhere. In Zambia, whose mining industry has received more than 400 million dollars in investments from the Chinese government, Chinese managers at the Collum Coal Mine in the southern Sinazongwe Province were reported to have shot and wounded 11 of their workers during a protest last year.
The Chinese presence has also provoked some political parties to campaign on “no foreigner” platforms.
However, it was among its Asian neighbours that China’s presence was most strongly felt last year. China’s rise to its position as Asia’s dominant economy, confirmed in August, raised urgent questions in Japan, which worried that China’s economic clout would soon be matched with provocative behaviour. The following month, that fear was seemingly realised.
In September, a Chinese trawler collided with two Japanese coastguard ships near a group of disputed islands. Japanese police arrested the captain for deliberately ramming the vessels, triggering a serious diplomatic struggle between the two countries. China suspended ministerial exchanges with Japan and stopped the export of rare minerals.
The row lasted for over two weeks, before Japanese prosecutors released the captain and tensions fizzled out. Japanese politicians warned the exchange made their country look weak, but China came out of the scuffle looking worse. To its Asian neighbours, its softly spoken assurances of a peaceful rise began to look hollow.
Earlier in the year, the Chinese military declared its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, after Hilary Clinton, secretary of State for the US, argued that the sea was part of her country’s “national interest” in the region. The altercation with Japan over the islands suggested that China’s claims to the sea would be vigorously asserted, with at least diplomatic force.
Its diplomatic muscle was also called into question about North Korea.
In March, a South Korean warship sank near the disputed border with North Korea. Investigators later concluded that a torpedo from a North Korean submarine was to blame. Yet, China refused to condemn Pyongyang. Tensions between North and South remained high and reached a peak in November, when North Korean troops shelled a small southern island, killing two civilians.
In the biggest crisis between the two countries since the end of the Korean War, China (the only regional country that can exert influence on North Korea) merely called for restraint on both sides.
The incident was damaging all-round. Asian countries that rely on the US for their security glimpsed its impotence over this issue. The episode also hinted that even China may not be able to rein in Pyongyang.
If China’s rise is being felt in Africa and Asia, political advertising provides a glimpse into its place in the US, its likely biggest rival.
In the run-up to the mid-term elections, a conservative lobbying group ran an advertisement envisaging a future where China dominates the US. The latter was shown to have turned its back on the principles that made it great, and depicts a sinister Chinese politician against an Orwellian backdrop: “So now they work for us,” he said to the delighted laughter of his young Chinese audience.
The advertisement was an attack on big government, but its other message was clear, too: China is rising and the US is fading. Americans feel this in their hearts and their leaders fear it: “How do you deal toughly with your banker?” Clinton once asked rhetorically, according to leaked diplomatic cables.
China holds around 870 billion dollars in US treasury bills, more than any other country. As China’s wealth grows, such questions as posed by Clinton will become more insistent.
It is not the growth of China’s economy that worries its neighbours and rivals, but what it means to do with this wealth. African countries are pleased with the investment their new best friend brings, even though it may not be good for them in the long-term. Asian countries recognise that China’s growth is good for them as well, but worry about its military expansion and tough talking.
For the first time in its history, the US has to confront a rival that it cannot challenge militarily without destabilising a world system it relies on for its wealth.
Over the past 12 months these questions have been raised, but it will be many years before there are clear answers.
In the Chinese calendar, this past year was, appropriately, the Year of the Tiger. As Asia’s largest tiger grows, its roar can increasingly be heard around the world, unsettling its neighbours and rivals alike.
A Churchill Fellow for 2009/10