China's Clout in Africa
Absence of political strings makes Chinese investment attractive for African governments, says Maryland foreign policy specialist Ernest J. Wilson III.
Wilson observed that, in the United States, "we know a lot about backing dictators."
University of Maryland Africanist and political scientist Ernest J. Wilson III issued no warnings and few recommendations in his Feb. 7 presentation on China's influence in Africa. Change does not always imply crisis, he said, but the rapidly expanding role of China in several African countries deserves a hard look. The talk was sponsored by UCLA's African Studies Center, Center for Chinese Studies, and Asia Institute; Wilson holds appointments in two departments on the College Park, Maryland, campus and has been a member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's board since his appointment in 2000 by President Clinton.
On a February 2004 tour of four African nations, Chinese President Hu Jintao told the Gabonese parliament that "China wants business, quote, 'with no political conditions,'" according to Wilson. A policy paper issued by the Chinese government this January reinforces that stance, which is significantly at odds with Western approaches that, however inconsistently, link aid and trade to transparency and human rights.
Wilson observed that, in the United States, "we know a lot about backing dictators," and said that the U.S. diplomatic strategy should be to underline the "costs" of supporting dictatorship in conversations with Chinese officials.
China's recent activity in Africa has centered on just a few nations, including Zimbabwe, Angola, South Africa, Sudan, and Nigeria, focusing on oil and, secondarily, copper and minerals. Chinese firms have greatly increased investments in Africa and looked to the continent for raw materials for use in manufacturing. The overall trade grew by nearly 40% in 2005 when all African nations are figured in, according to Chinese government numbers covering a ten-month period. At the same time, Wilson said, the Chinese policy of pegging its currency, the yuan or renminbi, to the U.S. dollar has set back the textile and manufacturing industries of African and other developing nations, particularly Mexico. The yuan and, consequently, Chinese exports are significantly undervalued.
Wilson said that China's offers of aid and trade without political strings give African states greater leeway in making policy. In certain "ugly scenarios," this "maneuverability" for states could have terrible consequences for Africans, Wilson said. China's role in Sudan complicates any international effort to halt atrocities in that country's Darfur region, he suggested.
Although the United States has by no means "ceded" any part of Africa, Wilson said in response to an audience member's question about the possibility of new spheres of influence, a diminishing U.S. profile in some countries is at the root of concerns in Congress. Angola, for example, has received a $2 billion low-interest loan from China and comparably inconsiderable U.S. aid and investment.
Published: Tuesday, February 21, 2006