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China's African Safari


China’s expanding economic presence in Africa is proving to be a mixed blessing, spurring growth on the one hand and squeezing out local competition on the other.

The 18-hundred kilometer TanZam railway connects Zambia in southern Africa with Tanzania along the continent’s eastern shore. It was designed and built by the Chinese in the mid-1970s as part of their foreign aid program to Africa, but has long since fallen into disrepair.

The railway gave land-locked Zambia access to the sea. It symbolized China’s solidarity with Africa’s newly independent nations, and countered western and Russian influence on the continent.

Out with the Old, In with the New

Many experts say China is now building on its old friendships in Africa. Ernest Wilson, Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, says Beijing is pursuing a different kind of policy that favors economics over political rhetoric.

“The Chinese originally had one kind of foreign policy, which was sort of an international, socialist foreign policy. And it wasn’t very much rooted in economics. It was rooted more in politics nd rhetoric. It has now moved into a period where economics has moved to the forefront,” says Professor Wilson.

Ernest Wilson says this transition from a Maoist orientation to a market-economic foreign policy has led the Chinese to enhance their presence in Africa in search of raw materials and oil.

Oil, Minerals and Good Will

Boston University political scientist Edouard Boustin says oil is probably the most important part of China’s African strategy.

“China’s needs for oil imports have grown much faster than anybody else’s, possibly because of its economic expansion. At this point, Africa, of course, is definitely a major source of oil imports for China. Between 25 and 30 percent of China’s oil imports come from Africa,” says Eduard Boustin.

Beijing has already signed multi-million dollar oil deals with South Africa, Nigeria, Angola, Sudan and many other African countries. And it has invested millions of dollars in copper and cobalt mines in countries like Zimbabwe and the Republic of Congo.

Moreover, former Congressional Research Service Africa analyst Ray Copson says China is engaged in building infrastructure and development projects in some of Africa’s poorest countries to enhance its economic and cultural presence and garner political good will.

“Chinese business is engaged in countries that aren’t resource-rich. Even in Sierra Leone, there’s a Chinese-built hotel functioning. So Chinese business people will take risks. But, of course, you know that so many African countries do have resources. So China is undertaking some activity in Liberia. Many of us think of it as a poor country without resources. But, in fact, Liberia does have iron and timber and other resources that may be of long-term interest to China,” says Ray Copson.

According to official Chinese statistics, overall, trade between China and Africa has grown in the past year by nearly 35 percent to more than $ 39-billion dollars. And, as the world’s second-largest consumer of oil, China has become Africa’s third most important trading partner, after France and the United States.

Edging out the West

Some analysts argue that Beijing is positioning itself in Africa at the expense of the United States and Europe. Analyst Ray Copson says China has an advantage over the West that allows it more flexibility to work with Africans on more than one economic level. He adds, “When they become involved with an African country, they are able to provide a complete package because of their state-owned corporations and their state-affiliated corporations. Looking at Nigeria, just in January, China signed a $ 2.3 billion deal for the exploitation of a Nigerian oil field. At the same time, the Chinese Government came forward with a $2 billion loan for Nigeria. A Chinese company is going to be involved in rehabilitating Nigeria’s railways.”

This strategy, as outlined in a policy paper issued last month by the Chinese government, is conditional only on limiting African countries’ recognition of Taiwan. In contrast, many western countries, including the U.S., often tie their foreign aid to the recipient country’s willingness to implement political and economic reforms.

Most observers point out that China does not question its African friends about their political records. And some worry that African leaders reluctant to embrace democracy may emulate what some analysts call China’s brand of “free-market dictatorship.”

China's Trade Tsunami

Many analysts say the West should talk to China and Africa about these issues. They argue that the time is ripe for such dialogue as more and more Africans decry what they call Africa’s “tsunami of cheap Chinese goods.”

Chinese textiles, for example, have cost South Africa and Nigeria thousands of jobs and put hundreds of local manufacturers out of business. Just this month, South Africa convinced China to curb its textiles exports to give local industries a chance to compete. Other African nations have yet to follow suit. But that is not to say that Africa has not benefited from its relationship with China.

Africa's Gains

For the last two years, Africa has experienced an annual 5 percent increase in its gross domestic product due to China's demand for resources. The continent has gained increased access to Chinese markets and several countries have signed agreements with Beijing to implement a host of development projects.

But some observers say these gains do not provide a sound economic basis for future growth. They point to the TanZam railway as an example of how the Chinese send in their workers to construct a project and then withdraw once it is completed without leaving behind the expertise necessary to keep it going.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.