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Chinese Weapons Sales to Africa Raise Fresh Concerns


China is pouring investment into Africa in exchange for access to the continent’s natural resources. Its trade with the continent is set to top $50 billion. But China is also selling weapons and ammunition to African states accused of human rights abuses. Some analysts see this as evidence that China is destabilizing rather than developing Africa, as it has pledged to do. But China says it’s dedicated to peace on the continent, and it points to its peacekeeping operations in Africa as proof. In the second of a five-part series, VOA’s Darren Taylor focuses on the nature of China’s evolving relationship with Africa, and specifically its arms sales to the continent.

Pang Zhongying, professor of international studies and the director of the Institute of Global Studies at Nankai University, describes China’s relationship with Africa in largely favorable terms.

He says “three phases” underlie the country’s economic relationship with the continent: “Common development, non-interference in domestic politics and the provision of aid that is not tied to political situations.”

China’s economic strategy in Africa, according to Pang, hinges on its refusal to “interfere” in the politics of countries it does business with. There are no “political strings” attached to China’s aid to and trade with Africa, unlike the assistance provided to the continent by Western donors, he says.

But some analysts debunk the claim of the benign nature of some of China’s policies in Africa.

David Goldwyn, an international energy consultant, uses China’s relationship with Sudan as an example.

“Giving military aid to the government of Sudan is not a policy of non-interference. Giving military aid to the government of Sudan has an impact,” he says.

The Khartoum government is allegedly sponsoring a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Sudan’s Darfur region, where the United Nations says at least 200,000 people have been killed since 2003.

China’s National Petroleum Corporation has invested heavily in Sudan’s oil industry, and human rights activists say Khartoum is using much of the revenue generated by this investment to purchase weapons and ammunition – from China itself.

China’s supply of money and arms to the administration of President Omar al-Bashir is perceived by many, including in Africa, as “propping up an unjust regime,” says Goldwyn.

In addition, many weapons found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is wracked by civil war, are also of Chinese design and manufacture, says Goldwyn, and China supplied arms to both belligerents in the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

“There’s certainly a feeling (in the international community) that China should begin to behave with more responsibility in Africa,” Goldwyn says.

But Pang says China’s military relations with Africa are the “way of the world.” He says “other countries, like the United States and in Europe, also sell their weapons to African countries.”

Pang adds: “When it (arms sales) becomes related to humanitarian crises, it becomes a politicized question. My point of view is: Don’t politicize this question. Treat this question as a business question.”

But it’s Goldwyn’s view that China’s weapons sales in Africa shouldn’t be treated purely in commercial terms, because a “change in the correlation of forces within a country has an impact; it has an impact on the neighborhood and the level of conflict…It certainly had an impact in Sudan, in arming the government in a way that enabled it to do things that it could not have done otherwise.”

Pang’s response is that China is a signatory to all the major international arms control treaties, and that it abides by them.

Sun Baohong, political attaché at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., says her country, despite its sale of weapons and ammunition to Khartoum, is committed to peace in Africa, and specifically in the Darfur region.

“If the Darfur crisis could be solved tomorrow, we would be happy. A solution to the issue is in our best interests, because we have great investment in Sudan. But this does not mean that we have unique influence over the government of Sudan. We have influence there, but it has its limits,” Sun explains, reiterating that China is “unwilling to dictate to other countries” regarding their “domestic issues.”

She emphasizes that China wants to foster “national reconciliation” in Sudan, because without this, Sun maintains, there will be no peace there.

As evidence of this dedication to peace in Darfur as well as throughout Africa, Sun says that “China has 435 peacekeepers in Darfur serving on medical and engineering teams” and has deployed “many” peacekeepers across Africa.

Stephen Morrison, head of the Africa Program at the US-based Center for Strategic International Studies, says there are 1,200 Chinese “blue helmets” (UN peacekeepers) spread across seven peacekeeping operations in Africa.

While he describes China’s security provisions to Africa as “thin,” Morrison says the country “certainly puts more boots on the ground than the United States.”

Pang says China isn’t trying to change political systems through its peacekeeping efforts in Africa.

“The West has its reservations about this, because China continues to maintain the principles of sovereignty and equality and does not interfere in other countries domestic affairs. It does not export political models and values. It stresses neutrality,” he explains.

“In Chinese diplomacy, sovereignty trumps all other norms, including that of democracy,” comments Professor Ian Taylor, of the Department of International Relations at Scotland’s St. Andrews University.

He points out that Chinese official media have described Africa’s relatively recent wave of democratization as a “disaster” and Chinese commentators with close ties to the government have argued that multiparty politics fuels social turmoil, ethnic conflicts and civil wars.

“And of course this was welcomed by a variety of African leaders,” Taylor says.

“In fact, liberal democracy has been held up by the Chinese as a source of much of Africa’s woes, which goes directly against the Western consensus that lack of democracy accounts for some of Africa’s problems.”

Sun says China’s stance is that “African states must decide what’s best for their people, without any interference from outside.”

Taylor argues that such a position “makes very little real sense in a milieu dominated by corrupt regimes” in some African countries that are not dedicated to the development of their people, but to self-enrichment.

“It’s precisely because China doesn’t ask any questions about the neo-patrimonial regimes it encounters in Africa, that it doesn’t criticize the rampant corruption that goes with this and, crucially, doesn’t seek to advance meddlesome initiatives related to democracy and good governance that Beijing is the preferred partner of choice for many African autocrats.”

Taylor is convinced that China’s “hands-off policy” in Africa in Africa threatens to undermine the very development that China says it seeks to foster.

Goldwyn says it’s important to remember that the protection of human rights and the fight against corruption are not Western norms.

“If you look at the African Union, and you look at NEPAD, these are African norms we’re talking about here. We’re talking about whether we’re going to have governments in Africa that live up to the norms which they say they want to follow…. This is not ideological imperialism on the part of the United States or the Europeans; we’re talking about living up to standards that Africans have set for themselves.”

Goldwyn is certain that China is set to “adapt” some of its policies and strategies concerning Africa.

“China is evolving its international role. I think the historical policy of non-interference is having to change, because when China does something it has an impact, and when China doesn’t do something it has an impact also. And as an international player, those responsibilities are increasing.”

Morrison agrees that China “is not going to able to play this so-called non-interference in local politics forever.” He uses President Hu Jintao’s visit earlier this year to eight African countries, where trade unions protested against poor labor conditions in Chinese factories and human rights groups demonstrated against Hu for China’s perceived role in fomenting the Darfur crisis, to bolster his assertion.

“There was a threshold crossed” during Hu’s visit to Africa, says Morrison: “The Chinese were surprised and in some cases shocked by the scope and level of intensity” around these issues.

He’s of the opinion that the anti-Chinese demonstrations in Africa have contributed to China realizing that it will have to “expand its dialogue about these issues from state to state level, to engaging directly with civil society groups” in Africa.

Sun agrees that there’s room for such expansion, but insists once again that Africa’s future with regard to good governance is in the continent’s hands, not in China’s.

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