KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
THE IMPARTIAL OBSERVER
The Paradox of China Safari
Sunday 25 March 2012
The paradox of the China Safari is that Africa stands to benefit. Yet, despite the time-honored admonishment “don’t look gift horses in the mouth,” it would be utter folly for Africa not to try and decipher the real motives behind China’s unconcealed and burgeoning interests in Africa.
Being in dire straits, Africa would presumably follow any benefactor that offers it hope. But a critical question needs to be answered; will Africa, like a marooned and thirsty itinerant, drink from a poisoned chalice, just to satisfy its economic thirst and developmental needs?
For long, there has been a raging debate as to what China’s relentless economic and trade incursions mean for Africa. Those will who read or sense altruistic motives or assistance “without strings attached”, evidently buy into the Chinese mantra. But skeptics abound; and if concerns persist about China’s ubiquitous presence in Africa and its growing influence and visibility, such concerns are legitimate. Indeed, those who fear that with China, Africa is once again about to be taken to the cleaners - as erstwhile colonialists did- may not be off the mark. Parenthetically, Africans, especially the political leaders are unwilling to address this issue openly, either bilaterally or collectively.
China’s presence in Africa is huge and can be discerned in tangible terms. China and its public and private sectors economic interest teams are anchored in parts of Africa, where there are bountiful natural resources --minerals, timber, copper, uranium to harvest and certainly, in the oil fields of Libya, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Angola. Though late comers to the Official Development Assistance (ODA) game, Chinese teams have not embarked on their Africa Safari forays empty handed. They bring gifts; irresistible gifts. In Zaire they built a gleaming stadium; and in Guinea Bissau, a futuristic National Assembly building. They have built stadiums of various shapes and sizes all over Africa, at no cost – not even labor costs—to the recipients. But the mother of all gifts to Africa is the new and impressive Africa Union Headquarters in Addis Ababa (see photo to the right).
Africa has been duped and looted before by colonial masters, with supposedly altruistic but nonetheless cynical and self-serving agendas. In Uganda, Asians took over the country until Idi Amin kicked them out. The United States, which like China was never a colonial power has forged its own alliances in Africa, wielding at once, a big stick as it dishes out the carrots. But unlike China, the U.S. at least, makes no pretenses about declaring and protecting its strategic interests. China, with the best intentions, utilizes subterfuge and diplomatic legerdemain.
Those who have argued that aids dependency sets Africa back are not wrong. And it is hard to see how Africa can abandon the yoke of colonialism only to acquiesce to the yoke of economic subjugation. But the risk is real. Chinese interests and trade investments in Africa reportedly quintupled over a six-year period; rising from $10 billion in 2000 to $55 billion in 2006. When the Libyan crisis began in February 2011, China had well over 18,000 of its national in the oil sector alone that it needed to evacuate before the NATO airstrikes commenced. In Sudan, China’s economic interest in the country is so huge and compelling that its stance in the determining the right course to pursue vis-à-vis the political direction of the country, was utterly blurred.
But it has to be admitted also, that whereas erstwhile colonial leaders in Africa came, saw, reaped and plundered Africa, without any meaningful investments, China has come with perhaps a more sophisticated approach, which seems more acceptable and palatable to Africans. China comes with gifts – tangible and discernible gifts – stadiums, political edifices, roads, rail lines, etc. But they also arrive in Africa, turn-key ready; with the completely knocked down parts for such structures as well as the experts and laborers. On another plain, China has been building and launching satellites for African countries, Nigeria being the latest recipient of such service; albeit, without any arrangement to transfer the technical knowhow for building such satellites. So far, China has set up some 142 agricultural projects across the African continent, complete with fourteen specialized agricultural technology demonstration centers.
Nevertheless, I have previously on this space cautioned about the pitfalls of dubious foreign economic forays into Africa, even those with presumably charitable slants (See “Strangers in Africa bearing gifts”). But the paradox of the China Safari is that Africa stands to benefit in real terms. Yet and despite the time-honored admonishment “don’t look gift horses in the mouth,” it would be utter folly for Africa not to try and decipher the real motives behind China’s unconcealed and burgeoning interests in Africa. Is there really equity? Or is China taking out more than it is investing in Africa, and garnering a lopsided return on its marginal investment in Africa. Is the Chinese approach a loss leader – to placate before it strikes?
In fairness to China, it has aligned with and engaged Africa openly, the 2006 China-Africa Summit being a case in point. In this regards, China is only following suit, considering that there is the Commonwealth Summit led by Britain; the Franco-Africa Summit, convened by the French; as well as the Japan-Africa Summit and the India-Africa Summit. But there are growing concerns about China’s role in Africa, most of which are well-documented. A recent well researched exposé, titled China Safari: On the Trail of Beijing’s Expansion in Africa. by Serge Michel and Michel Beuret, delves into the opacity of Chinese policies and contracts in Africa; the unwillingness of Chinese firms to discuss compliance with labor laws; its willingness to do business with nations led by autocrats who violate international humanitarian laws and oppress their populations. In sum, the book points to the use of subterfuge and lack of transparency in nearly all the Chinese ventures in Africa. Yet some see China’s assistance to Africa as agenda-free and a once-in-a-century opportunity for Africans to redress past colonial abuses, neglect and rape of their continent.
Obfuscated as it seems China’s ambitions in Africa is not glaring and therefore hard to grasp or find. But there also seems to be some balance out there; unless it is sufficiently deceptive that most observers are fooled and therein lays the China-Africa cooperation paradox. For its part, China claims it has no political agenda in Africa, which explains its reticence and unwillingness to insinuate itself into domestics affairs of sovereign African nations, no matter how bad the conditions are. Meanwhile, it is no longer a matter of conjecture that China is set to reap major windfall in concessions on the basis of quid pro quos, where in return for humongous contracts to build badly needed infrastructure, China gets unfettered access to Africa’s mostly unexploited markets and resources such as oil, uranium, cobalt, copper, copper, cobalt, coltan, gold and timber.
Without question, Africa’s place is a difficult one to be in, having been previously suckered. Hence Africa, must with some circumspection, dine with China, with the proverbial “long spoon”; keep an eye open, while sleeping with a presumptive enemy; and understand that overall, it bears the greater burden and risk in its evolving relations with China, which is a global power with enormous clout and resources.
If there is a marginally comforting side to the China-Africa tango, it might be as Serge Michel and Michel Beuret concluded, the mere fact that quite unlike the West, China has done something that is both discernible and invaluable by showcasing an Africa that is not “condemned to everlasting stagnation;” and more importantly, by offering “Africa a future — or at least a vision of the future — that would have been inconceivable just a decade ago.” Nonetheless, only time will tell if the China-Africa dalliance will in end be a long and consummated relationship or prove to be a one-night stand.
With neither anger nor partiality, until next time, keep the law, stay impartial, and observe closely.
Hank Eso is a columnist for Kwenu.com. His observations on Nigerian, African and global politics and related issues, has appeared in various print media, journals and internet-based sites. © Hank Eso, 25 March 2012. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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