China’s Growing Influence: A New Scramble for Africa?

 News from Africa

 As the dragon awakes, Western Nations are running scared, given that more African countries are looking East.

 Fr Kizito Sesana

Will China become the main world economic power at the dawn of this new decade? Will its economy overtake that of the United States? Analysts believe this is a possibility. What we begin to understand is that in Africa, the just concluded decade marked China’s advance while the ensuing one heralds its consolidation. Since 2000, China has made irreversible progress in Africa, winning the confidence of much of the ruling class, and becoming the largest donor and trading partner of many countries.

 The presence of the Chinese in Africa is easily noticeable given their ubiquitous projects, mainly heavy investment in various sectors of the economy, including infrastructure, which is no longer a priority for other development partners. After the mistakes of the past – the oversized stadiums and the ostentatious presidential palaces – now the Chinese favour the construction of communication infrastructure, including major roads, railways, ports and airports. In addition to this, unlike their Western counterparts, the Chinese projects are completed efficiently and within a shorter time frame. Besides, the Chinese aid does not come with strings attached. While it can be argued that the infrastructure is also useful for extraction, commercialization and acquisition of raw materials for the profit of Chinese companies, the ultimate beneficiaries are the locals, as these projects remain within the destination country.

 In Nairobi, for instance, Chinese construction companies are changing the face of the city. One notable company is China Wu Yi Construction Company, currently involved in the expansion and modernization of the road to Thika, an industrial town located some 50 km north of the capital. Thika Road, as it is popularly known, catering for about 250,000 vehicles a day in transit, had become a nightmare for motorists. The Chinese are upgrading it to a “super-highway” with four-lanes, plus two service lanes, in both directions, for a total of 12 lanes. The Kenyan government finances 15 per cent of the work, with the Chinese government funding the rest. People look bewildered at the awesome works – flyovers, underpasses, interchanges – and nod in approval. Finally, after so many promises, real change has come and motorists and passengers alike have a reason to smile.

 Elsewhere, there is already talk of a new industrial port at the Kenyan coastal town of Lamu, and the connection with oil fields in Southern Sudan, which will be voting in the next five days in a referendum to decide whether to secede or remain, united with the Arab North. The port of Lamu will be bigger than that of Mombasa and the work should begin by the middle of this year, and will be completed with a pipeline, a railway and a road linking it to the oilfields of Southern Sudan. This is, no doubt, a major undertaking of monumental economic proportions. But who will be awarded the tender? The Chinese are the most likely candidates.

 Yet the Chinese have over the last decade laid the oil pipeline that goes from the same oilfields to the North, to Port Sudan, in the process earning them the epithet of being allies of the North against Southern Sudan. Despite this, there has been no doubt that the South Sudanese will accept without difficulty the Chinese involvement in a work of such magnitude. The Chinese have no donor conditionality; do not ask embarrassing questions on human rights, or on laws for the protection of workers, or on the political regime. They do not ask to retain control of the infrastructure, and are only ready to do maintenance if paid, not to mention that they never raise environmental objections. Lamu, which is a jewel of Swahili culture in a dream lagoon where until recently the only car that exists is that of the police, with the rest people only moving on foot, by bicycle or donkey, could lose its identity and heritage owing to a port of such magnitude. But to the Chinese, this is not their problem. If Kenya decides to implement the port project and pay for it, the Chinese are ready to build it in a record time.

 The West has never wavered in its criticism of China’s growing influence, capitalizing on the fact that China does business without any consideration of the local situation regarding human rights, environment and politics. While the Chinese have never denied this, the West has little political and moral authority to denounce the methods of others. Nobody can deny that the nearly fifty years of cooperation and aid to Africa by Western countries were, overall, an unmitigated disaster from all perspectives: economic, developmental, political and moral.

 Where ten years ago, Europeans and Americans saw only problems, the Chinese have seen the opportunities. They bought land, mines and interests in oil concessions that were snubbed by Western companies that did not believe in their short term profitability. Today, those acquisitions have proved to be far-sighted, in a continent where Westerners are beginning to realize that there is not only hunger, war and misery, but where for some years the economic growth indicators are on the rise.

 What Europeans see in Africa is still a bit clouded by their paternalistic and condescending view of old colonialists. The Americans are opening their eyes, if only because they see the control of the African oil reserves slipping. Recently, Michael Battle, U.S. ambassador to the African Union ( a position created by President George Bush in 2006), was quoted in the Mail & Guardian online, saying “If we don’t act now we will miss a golden opportunity in Africa, and wake up to find that China and India have divided up the continent without us”.

 As the reporter Jason Hickel noted, Battle couldn’t have been blunter — or more offensive to the Africans — if he tried. Instead of relying on high principles of humanitarian intervention, cooperation and development, he made a speech centred around the need to defend and strengthen the U.S. military presence and support the expansion of American companies on the African continent. He spoke of the need to urge African governments to harmonize trade rules and simplify regulations. Very concrete demands by a businessman wishing to remove the obstacles to his marketing strategy. After all, it is the same attitude the Chinese started applying ten years ago, and continued to do, without attracting attention, with steady determination. Today the Chinese presence in Africa and its success is so obvious that they themselves can no longer hide it, and all the others are in pursuit.