The Magazine

Africa's New Hegemon

From Cape to Cairo via Beijing.

Mar 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 24 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

When Hu visited al-Bashir in Khartoum, all he had to offer the genocidal leader on the subject of Darfur was a polite request that the Sudanese president play a more "constructive role in realizing peace." Just days earlier, a Sudanese government official had accused the United States of "dismantling the Sudanese government from within" and trying to spur "international pressure on Khartoum through human rights institutions and by bringing into the country elements opposed to the government." As long as the Sudanese keep their oil spigots open, they will continue to reap Chinese rewards: During his visit, Hu bestowed on al-Bashir a $13 million interest-free loan to construct a new presidential palace and cancelled $70 million in debt. In return, China receives 60 percent of Sudan's oil output and is the country's largest foreign investor.

In addition to its military support for the odious regimes in Khartoum and Harare, China sold arms to both Ethiopia and Eritrea during those countries' civil wars and has generally flooded the continent with weaponry, sometimes selling guns both to governments and to the rebel groups who fight them.

According to Herman Cohen, a 38-year State Department veteran who served as ambassador to Senegal and Gambia and, in the first Bush administration, as assistant secretary of state for Africa, China's interest in the continent is nothing new. Since the 1960s, he says, China has been intimately involved in African affairs. It sought to exert influence as a Cold War power by cultivating relations with like-minded Marxist regimes; then in the past decade or so, as it emerged as a potential world power with a ravenous need for raw materials, China came to see Africa more as a land of natural resources to be exploited than as a place to win hearts and minds. Oil, simply put, drives Chinese policy in Africa.

Next to the United States and the nations of the former Soviet Union, China has the most oil-intensive economy in the world. Africa is the source of only about 10 percent of China's oil imports (with Sudan representing 1.7 percent of the total), but that's enough, in absolute terms, to make African suppliers giddy. Domestic oil production is declining faster in China than in the United States, and consumption is increasing at an even higher rate, making the Chinese quest for fossil fuels all the more desperate. China's share of world oil consumption is expected to increase dramatically, from 7 percent to 12 percent, between 2002 and 2025, while the U.S. share is expected to drop from 47 percent to 35 percent over the same period. In just over a decade, China went from being a net exporter of oil to being the world's second largest importer, behind the United States. Indeed, increasing Chinese demand is one of the primary factors driving the price of oil so high.

To meet its energy needs, China has depended on a rogues' gallery of international oil producers. Defying American entreaties to isolate Iran, for example, China in 2004 signed a $70 million oil and gas contract with Tehran. It also buys oil from Sudan and, prior to the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, was one of the most vociferous opponents of the U.N. sanctions regime that reduced Saddam Hussein's ability to sell oil on the international market. With the United States now occupying Iraq, China has been forced to look elsewhere for oil, and African states have been all too happy to oblige, waiting in the wings to overtake the volatile Middle East as China's chief supplier. Already Angola is China's third largest oil trading partner, following Iran and Saudi Arabia. (Total Chinese trade with the Saudis grew 30 percent between 2005 and 2006.)

In the United States, domestic pressure has long influenced foreign policy; student protests over Sudanese human rights abuses, for example, played a role in getting the U.S. government to prevent American companies from doing business in Sudan and in forcing American universities to divest themselves of holdings in companies doing business there. By contrast, China, an authoritarian state, suffers no such meddling influences. Indeed, the only condition the Chinese impose on African states in exchange for aid seems to be nonrecognition of Taiwan.