The Magazine

Into Africa

Mischief-making is the latest Chinese export.

Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Close on the heels of the latest sham election in Zimbabwe, the International Criminal Court announced last week that it is seeking the arrest of the president of Sudan on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. As Africa notches up more failures on the long road out of colonialism, a new pseudo-colonial power--China--is busily engaged in getting exactly what it wants out of the continent. The implications for the kind of political and economic evolution likely to unfold in Africa are significant.

Until about 20 years ago, China's interest in Africa consisted mainly of encouraging Marxist revolutionary factions. Lately, however, that interest has taken a decidedly economic turn. China is in the market for most of Africa's products and is selling its own there as well. Once a major oil exporter, China became a net importer of oil in 1993 and is now dependent on imports for half its oil and natural gas. To meet this need, it has diversified its sources, in particular making deals with most of Africa's oil-producing states.

Just in the past three years, Beijing has signed energy deals with Algeria, Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, and Sudan. Its investment in Sudan's pipeline and refinery infrastructure, valued at between $3 billion and $5 billion, is mind-boggling in such a poor country, but it is not unusual for the energy industry. China bought a stake in a Nigerian offshore field two years ago for $2.5 billion and promised to invest the same amount in further exploration and development. China has huge investments in Algeria, with whose government it is also cooperating on the development of nuclear energy, and Angola, which this spring overtook Nigeria as the continent's largest producer of oil.

Chinese investment in Africa took off exponentially in the early 1990s. So did China-Africa trade. According to the Nigerian economist Adama Gaye, trade between China and Africa reached the $10 billion mark in 2000 and is likely to reach $55 billion this year. If it reaches $100 billion in 2010, as Gaye thinks likely, it will surpass both American and French trade with Africa. The continent's other major trading partners are India (growing) and Britain (not growing).

Significantly, Nigeria's then-president Olusegun Obasanjo, once a U.S. favorite, said last year that this would be the Chinese century, and he encouraged Africans to stay with the leader. There is no question China's mix of authoritarianism and rapid economic development is tempting to states whose political and economic institutions are fragile and whose relations with the liberal West tend to be ambivalent.

Not that the United States has been absent from African affairs. On the contrary, the Bush administration has supported huge increases in African exports to the United States (through the tariff-ending Africa Growth Opportunity Act) and U.S. investments in Africa (through the State Department's Overseas Private Investment Corporation), as well as debt relief initiatives, development aid in agriculture, and programs to combat disease and keep children in school. The Bush administration has encouraged African development more seriously than any of its predecessors, and it has insisted that prosperity is more likely to endure if accompanied by the spread of the institutions that sustain free societies, rather than the authoritarian model China promotes.

Which will be the ascendant influence? Chinese consumer goods are becoming ubiquitous in Africa, as elsewhere. "Made in China" clothes, personal and commercial vehicles, and electronics are widely available, and Chinese fast-food is even catching on. High level trade and investment delegations on multi-country tours are almost banal, while the annual "China-Africa Forums" are becoming more important in terms of deal-making than the Francophonie summits that France sponsors. Chinese assistance includes the deployment of thousands of doctors to fight tropical and infectious diseases.

The Chinese contribute hospitals, schools, and roads--they are building the trans-Maghreb highway across Algeria, for example, on which travelers ride in Chinese-assembled buses. Although as recently as a few years back Peugeot was the dominant car in West Africa by far, Japan's Toyota and Korea's Hyundai, both assembled in China, and China's own Chery Automobile will soon overtake it.

Prestige follows power. "Confucian Centers" are promoting Chinese language study in 16 countries, while "Confucian Institutes" in partnership with local universities have been established for advanced study of language and management in Sudan, Zimbabwe, Kenya, and South Africa. Scholarships are offered for university study in China. Chinese radio broadcasts in several languages compete with the popular programs of the Voice of America, the BBC, and RFI.