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Losing China and Africa?
David Hsu, 6 Dec 06

November was a big month for Chinese summits. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit just wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, and at the beginning of the month, there was the Sino-Africa summit in Beijing, officially known as the third Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOAC).

There was ample mainstream news coverage of both summits, particularly about China's growing role in Africa, but surprisingly little coverage of the environmental implications in either the mainstream media or blogosphere. I have been surprised that there seem to be far fewer articles in the environmental community about the implications of China's growing role in Africa. has an article about China's growing role in Nigerian oil here. The Council on Foreign Relations has an entire feature on China's Africa policy, particularly related to oil.

I've found some good articles that explore China's growing role in Africa as a natural consequence of its growing global role in politics, trade, and development. The Economist has a good overview and editorial on China and Africa's fast-growing economic relationship. Al Jazeera has an exceptionally fair and balanced article on China's Africa policy. The New York Times Magazine has an on-the-ground article titled "China's African Adventure", and YaleGlobal, a magazine devoted to exploring the consequences of globalization published by Yale University, piles on with a general overview titled "China's African Safari".

Most of the other articles that I've read promote strictly positive or negative views of rising Chinese power and influence. The positive view, is of course, from those who focus on how globalization and capitalism are helping China and India to make the quickest strides towards development and wealth ever. This sentiment is expressed by Jeffrey Sachs in a Forbes article and by James Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank, in a recent Australian Broadcasting Corp. interview.

The negative view is usually couched in terms of geopolitical and economic anxieties. The most common narrative angle in the U.S. was how rising Chinese influence irks, and must come at the expense of other countries, particularly the U.S.. The Christian Science Monitor titles their article "A Rising China Counters US Clout in Africa". An interesting, and surprisingly similar, Indian perspective is here from the India Times. The most direct title, perhaps, comes from an article from Reuters (via the Sudan Tribune) titled "China's Africa oil power bugs Western rivals". Another angle is how China's repressive political system, abysmal human rights record, and economic needs will manifest themselves when in terms of dealing with shady African countries. Human Rights Watch has an article about the human rights implications here.

There are a few interesting things to note about much of this negative coverage. The mainstream media is pervaded by an odd note of surprise that China is pursuing its own goals, particularly with regards to energy. China, as a rising economic superpower of 1.7 billion people, is going to have its own internal dynamics and external foreign policy. In order to understand China's present and future role in shaping the global environment -- as both a developing and developed country -- we need to recognize that China will pursue its own goals. The most clear-eyed viewpoint is that China's Africa policy is a fully separate, independent, and competitive view of development. This is well-represented by New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, in his November 22, 2006 column (no longer free) titled "Harmony versus Democracy: Stay Tuned", when he writes,

China is not in the business of exporting war, development models or political blueprints. It wants to do business, morality be damned. Democracy, in its world view, comes in a very distant second to growth - if it comes in at all. The kindest view of the Chinese position is this: Growth solves most problems, and no problems, be they of poverty or enslavement, are solvable without it.

Nowhere have the Chinese differences with Washington been clearer than in Africa. While the leading industrial nations of the G-8 tie aid for Africa to democracy and "zero tolerance for corruption," China does energy deals of the kind cemented at the recent China-Africa forum in Beijing.

"African countries can now play to multiple audiences," said Jeffrey Herbst, the provost of Miami University and an Africa expert. "The G-8 has been eclipsed and the big losers are Bono and Jeffrey Sachs and the charity crowd. The Chinese are not interested in the internal governance or human rights affairs of African states."

The Chinese approach has the merit of seeing potential rather than cause for conscience-salving charity in Africa; it has the drawback of helping thugs like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

So, what is particularly important for other countries -- and environmentalists -- is to recognize that China has emerged as an independent actor in world affairs, and that everyone besides China and Africa may well be watching from the sidelines on this one. Even if China is, as we at WorldChanging have put it, the "Great Wager" in the future of the global environment -- I agree -- the relationship of China and Africa may very well unfold in many ways regardless of Western or U.S. intentions. Sometimes, I occasionally can't help but detect a note of panic over China's impact on the global environmental future that is reminiscent of the Truman-era phrase, "losing China". Neither China or Africa are now, and or were never, ours to lose. China will act according to its interests, and Africans may well decide that their future prospects with China are better than their tragic past and present situation with the West. Their goals and methods that will certainly differ from ours. We may, for better or for worse, only be able to influence China by engaging it with ideas, trade, technology, international treaties, and cooperation.

The critical question then becomes, when do the Chinese seek to balance economic and environmental development, both in China and Africa?

I've found a few starting places, perhaps, for us to start answering these questions. WorldChanging's Green China overview is here. I find this second article here from a bit more interesting, because is summarizes better what the direct impacts to China will be in terms of global warming and environmental degradation. The New York Times has also been running recent features on environmental degradation in China, though this article is no longer free.

The most interesting perspectives on how China views Africa come from various news correspondents inside China. Richard Spencer, on his China blog for the Daily Telegraph, comments on how China's relationship to Africa is reported in the Chinese official media, and how the Chinese view their relationship to Africa. Here's another view from Tim Johnson on his McClatchy Newspapers blog. Most of their ruminations are really about how viewing China causes us to see ourselves.

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It's funny that any western government would find fault in China's foreign policy on Africa especially their unwillingness to engage African leaders on human rights issues. The West ignored human rights for decades while they did business with African dictators and "democratically elected" presidents-for-life such as Mobutu of Zaire, Mengistu of Ethiopia, Doe and Taylor of Liberia, Bokassa of CAR, Bongo of Gabon, and Obiang of Guinea Bissau, to name a few.

Posted by: Jerry on 7 Dec 06

It will be interesting to see how China and India deal with the problems that come with affluence. At the moment the concentration of wealth in these countries is geographically isolated to the urban areas. With the passage of time more individuals are going to want their individual pieces of the economic pie and prosperity. India is going to have to deal with its legacy of the caste system and China will have to confront a population that is largely rural and very poor. If the wealth isn't spread quickly what America experienced during the Civil Rights era will seem tame and quaint. Also, both will have major health care issues to deal with and the current GDP numbers cannot be trusted. Anyone who invests in these countries does their own research; the government's numbers cannot be trusted. Many of the deals, particularly with the Chinese banks, simply do not pass the smell test but are being done only out of the fear of being left behind.

If China and India band together look look for greater regional alliances between the US, Canada, and Mexico. Predictions, while interesting, are predicated on the information at hand and the general tenor of the times. Remember, Bill Gates believed that their was little market for the home computer and got into the operating system business by dumb luck.

Throw global climate change and pandemics into the mix and predictions have a relatively short half-life.

Posted by: Beltway Greg on 9 Dec 06

There's been quite a lot of coverage of the African view (mainly from African bloggers) over at Global Voices You should include this links as well for a different perspective.

Posted by: Kenyan Pundit on 11 Dec 06



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