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.
China's military role on the continent has grown in importance. Equipment and advisers have been sent to Congo (Kinshasa) and Angola, and there were reports in 2003 that firms fronting for the People's Liberation Army were smuggling weapons to Sierra Leone and Liberia during those small West African countries' catastrophic diamond wars, into which Ivory Coast, beset by its own north-south sectional and tribal problems, was drawn.
China's diplomatic support for the regime in Khartoum is well known as a result of Western efforts to broker peace among the many contending Sudanese clans and tribes. Lately Beijing, concerned to avoid criticism of its embrace of brutal regimes in the run-up to the Olympic Games, has pressured Sudan to cooperate with the deployment of a U.N.-African Union force to protect people in the war-torn Darfur province from tribal militias, some of which Khartoum has armed and supported.
It is worth keeping in mind, however, that civil wars have raged in Sudan practically without interruption since independence in 1956, and China, building its influence in the country, made no effort to stop them. Beijing's official position has been that the "situation in Sudan is an internal affair," as one Chinese foreign minister said. Although wars between the Arab north and the black south officially ended in 2005, the government of Omar al-Bashir is showing little inclination to respect the share-the-oil part of the U.S.-brokered peace agreement. Khartoum has spent some of its revenue from oil on Chinese arms, reinforced by Chinese military personnel.
Meanwhile, the violence in Darfur, which began with the revolt of Muslim tribes in the western province and led to brutal counterinsurgency campaigns, recently blew back into Khartoum. One of the many Darfuri armed groups sent a motorized column into Sudan's capital, where it was decimated--quite possibly with direct Chinese help. J. Peter Pham, a professor at James Madison University and a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies who reported last year on the Chinese military association with Sudan, notes that when you provide a regime with $100 million worth of supersonic fighter jets, you must really intend for that regime to survive.
Darfur crisis watchers and activists are well aware that the people they are trying to protect in that disaster zone (a quarter of a million killed, two million displaced) are attacked from the air as well as on the ground. Meanwhile, a congressionally mandated report dated October 2006 had already put at anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 the number of Chinese soldiers in Sudan, lightly disguised as petroleum engineers and construction workers.
Sudan's complexities, however, are unlikely to becloud China's keen sense of its own interests. In the Horn of Africa, for example, Pham points out China has sold a billion dollars' worth of arms to both sides in one of the continent's many underreported conflicts, the one between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Beijing bet heavily on Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, but if or when the southerners go back to the hills to fight for their independence (and their oil), it may well be with arms supplied by China. Until then, Bashir's indictment by the International Criminal Court can only strengthen the Chinese hand to the degree it increases the president's diplomatic isolation.
Arms, too--specifically a shipment of three million AK-47 rounds, rocket-propelled grenades, and mortars--are at the center of the latest episode in the long and warm relationship between China and Zimbabwe. The shipment, on the An Yue Jiang last April, was by no means unusual, but dockworkers in Durban, South Africa, refused to unload it for the overland part of its journey.
The good relations between South Africa and Zimbabwe have been strained by the crazy rule of Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party, which has wrecked a once-flourishing economy, murdered opposition activists, shut down a vigorous independent press, and now is forcing tens of thousands of refugees across the border into Botswana and South Africa, leading to deadly riots. Under these conditions, sending arms right in the middle of a presidential election that the ruling clique was determined to brazen out (Mugabe openly stated he would not allow the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to come to power) strained even the old-comrade ties that have made South African president Thabo Mbeki reluctant to criticize Mugabe.
It is of course quite possible that the days of strongmen like Mugabe are numbered anyway. In the meantime, however, the An Yue Jiang's cargo reportedly arrived safe and sound in Harare, having transited through Mozambique. Will Chinese president Hu Jintao give some stern advice to Mugabe, as he did in June to the Sudanese vice president?
During violence in Kenya last winter sparked by flawed elections, China's People's Daily (the organ of the ruling party) editorialized that "Western-style democracy is not suited for Africa." However, passing through Washington last month, Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, sharply criticized Mugabe and called free elections imperative in Zimbabwe.
If an American presidential candidate did the same--if, without injecting himself into Zimbabwe's or Sudan's or any other country's internal politics, Barack Obama or John McCain made it clear the United States dislikes the kinds of political regimes China promotes and enables--Africans would surely take note. Indeed, in a campaign year unlike any previous one, Americans themselves might notice.
Roger Kaplan is a writer in Washington.