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China Increasing Its Economic Stake in Africa

China's booming economy is forcing it to look around the world for natural resources and commercial opportunities, and one of the places it is looking is Africa. The Chinese are active in the oil sectors in several African countries, and a leading World Bank economist says Chinese activity in Africa is about more than just oil. As VOA's Stephanie Ho reports on the inroads China is making on the continent.

For a traveler on the road from the Beijing airport to the city last month, it was easy to get the impression that China loves Africa. Huge banners depicting African wildlife and culture lined the highway, and the city was abuzz with all things African.

The reason for all the attention was a major summit that China hosted in Beijing in November, which brought together leaders and representatives from nearly 50 African nations.

Todd Moss, of the Center for Global Development, an independent research group, says the meeting coincided with what he describes as Beijing's "renewed interest" in a "different kind of Chinese engagement with Africa."

He said, "We have seen a large increase in trade, a lot more Chinese investment and a lot more general commercial interest in Africa."

"Now, in January of this year, China put out its first ever [so-called] "Africa Policy" - it was published, even, in English - that lays out very explicitly that China is going to increase its economic relationship with Africa," he added.

Beijing's recent economic forays into Africa have been driven by China's need for natural resources and establishing oil security. In the last few years, Western experts say, China's economic activity in Africa has grown significantly.

Harry Broadman, an economist at the World Bank, just wrote a book that looks at Chinese investment and economic activity in Africa.

"The Chinese government, in 2002, which was the last year that they officially reported assistance, they provided $1.8 billion in economic support to all of Africa," he said.

He says the China Export-Import Bank reported $800 million in aid money to Africa for 2005, which Broadman says is just part of the overall picture of how much Chinese money is going to Africa.

For example, the World Bank compiled data from public sources showing that by November of this year, Chinese loans to Africa's infrastructure sector alone already totaled more than $12.5 billion.

"Looking at the aid picture is simply just one piece of a much larger puzzle, and I think the focus exclusively, or even in a very large extent, on assistance, and not keeping one eye on the ball in terms of the trade flows and the foreign direct investment, I think one is missing the boat," he said.

Broadman says right now a large amount of Chinese economic activity in Africa is related to oil.

But he adds that his book focuses on how Chinese activity in Africa has diversified to other sectors, including infrastructure, food-processing, textiles, water services, telecommunications, tourism and construction.

The Center for Global Development's Moss says Chinese economic activity in Africa does not come with many strings attached for recipients.

"China is interested in making sure that it has more allies," he said. "It wants to make sure that as few other countries as possible recognize Taiwan. A lot of this investment does not come with political conditions, except the one-China policy."

He adds that there are geopolitical benefits for Beijing in its effort to expand its economic reach.

"And China in general is trying to re-assert itself on the global stage as an influential global power, and it is able to do that in Africa with relatively small amounts of money," Moss continued.

Is China trying to position itself in Africa as an alternative to the West? This issue is raised by Joshua Kurlantzick, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who says he believes Beijing has based its relationship with Africa on the idea that it would be, in his words, "different from other powers."

But he says China is likely to face greater difficulties as its influence on the continent increases.

"How will African countries or anyone else in the world respond, and will China just be seen as another major power acting in its own interests, or will they actually be able to finesse this relationship, where they can act in their own interests, somehow [have it] portrayed as cooperative, and win all around?," he said.

Kurlantzick says if China, with its emphasis on non-interference in local affairs, is able to expand its presence in Africa and retain the image of a benign power, that would be, in his words, "impressive diplomacy."