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The New Cold War in Africa, China Moves in


China Moves in: “Need Some Arms, African Friend”?

A few years back, the Chinese government reckoned that economic success could not continue unless the country proved able to increase its international political standing, mainly because of the need to secure raw materials supply contracts to feed to its rapidly expanding industrial sector. Unfortunately, relations with the big Asian players (India, Japan and Russia) were and remain tense: historic rivalries and territorial claims mean that the country is still deeply mistrusted by them.

Given this, starting from around 2005 China decided to focus on Africa, tightening relations with those countries that are shunned by the international community:

  1. It signed a deal with Zimbabwe, receiving chrome in exchange for food and transport infrastructure in June 2006. Other trade pacts followed and now China is probably the closest partner of Zimbabwe, together with South Africa.
  2. In October 2007, following the cancellation of the national debt and other assorted pleasantries aimed at boosting relations, Eritrea granted exploration licences to Chinese firms to look for gold and other minerals.
  3. Starting from 2005, it agreed with Sudan to trade oil against industrial goods and infrastructural projects.

What the official announcements conveniently fail to mention is that the deals entailed large weapons supply contracts from China (see also this article). For example, now Sudan armoured and air force is predominantly Made-in-China (and there are unconfirmed reports of Chinese military personnel being located there for training purposes).
As a matter of fact, I’d say that weapons were the primary reason why these African nations entered into the agreement in the first place. For a pariah nation such as a ruthless dictatorship or a radical Islamic regime, military hardware is the most difficult stuff to get hold of, and at the same time the most vital one (both for internal stabilisation purposes and to fight its neighbours).

This pragmatic and cynical strategy (borderline criminal, if one believes the accusations of wilful flaunting of UN-sanctioned arms embargoes) had a remarkable success, in spite of some embarassments on the public relation front. For example, Steven Spielberg withdrew as artistic adviser for the Beijing games accusing China of not doing enough to pressure Sudan. Earlier on, Reporters Without Frontiers denounced the “toxic influence” of China for African democracies”.

Even if PR is certainly serious business (and Beijing is putting a lot of effort into it), I wouldn’t overstate the importance of these incidents for a country used to dealing with the bad press stemming from its actions in Tibet and Taiwan. Perhaps more seriously from China’s viewpoint, this increasing involvement is starting to generate all sorts of unintended consequences that have destabilised the region over and above the original intent. For example, the latest insurrection by Chad rebels (briefly covered in this diary – the rebels are probably armed by Sudan) threatened PetroChina investments and caused significant nervousness in Beijing (Chad is a recently-acquired China friend, too).

When such crises arose, China proved quite pedestrian in its handling of the situation, probably due to its inexperience in African diplomacy aside of commodity-for-arms deals, as it’s clear in the case of Kenya.

Kenya: Not Your Average Fraudulent Election Riots

The recent widespread riots in Kenya have often been reported by international media as a conflict pitting an incumbent president supported by the largest tribe in the country but marred by allegations corruption, favouritism and election rigging versus some other smaller tribes willing to take power (see my previous diary on Kenyan bloggers reporting on it). A missionary that works there offered an alternative interpretation to the audience of a radio show I listened to:

In Kenya, there is a conflict between two major tribes: the American tribe against the Chinese tribe. This spills into a conflict between two political groups, the one headed by [opposition leader Raila] Odinga against the one headed by [incumbent president Mwai] Kibaki.

Indeed there are various clues on the net that Kibaki moved closer to China since his visit to Beijing and Shangai in 2005 that resulted in a number of co-op agreements and later in a joint oil exploration project on Kenya’s offshore. These deals had initially slipped under my radar because it does not share the same controversial aspects as many similar deals made by China in Africa: Kenya is not a rogue state and the areas involved are genuinely infrastructure and tourism, not arms (although this might change soon as China has “pledge[d] to help modernise the [Kenya] armed forces.”).

Kenya hasn’t got the strategic importance in terms of raw materials that Congo or Nigeria have, but it’s the most important country in South-East Africa as far as stability and diplomatic ties are concerned. The closer co-operation with China meant an increasing alignment of Kenya with China in terms of international politics at the detriment of the U.S. and EU (e.g. during a China trip in 2006 Kibaki called for the lifting of the arms embargo against Sudan and Somalia)

Following the elections fraud allegedly perpetrated by Kibaki’s party and subsequent riots, China came out with a startling reading of the situation in a People’s Daily op-ed – the official government newspaper (the link is to an AP wire):

Pre-colonial Africa had plenty of consultative decision-making frameworks, but those were ignored when former European rulers “tyrannically” imposed Western democratic systems upon independence, the People’s Daily newspaper said in a commentary Monday. “Western-style democratic theory simply isn’t suited to African conditions, but rather carries with it the root of disaster,” said the paper, the official mouthpiece of China’s ruling Communist Party.

This rare departure from China’s no-interference policy with regards of internal foreign state matters on the day that one of Africa’s oldest and most stable democracies was on fire prompted retorts from Western media. Crucially though, it was seized upon by Kibaki critics to denounce the corruption of his administration and the deviousness of his international partners. In a hard-hitting article which caused widespread clamour and was syndicated throughout Africa, New Standard Okech Kendo explained why, in light of the recent events, “China has proved it’s not a friend to count on”.

Given how spectacularly this display of tactlessness and cynicism backfired on China, it’s perhaps not a surprise that the original China Daily article dated January 14 looks like it’s been taken offline.

America’s response (AFRICOM) is Faltering

Even taking into account of the U.S. support to the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia and the possible political sponsorship of Odinga in Kenya, the U.S. initiatives in the continent have been quite haphazard and reactive, rather than proactive.

Without a unified strategy, the rising influence of China as well as the menace of Islamic extremism were allowed to continue virtually unchallenged. Over the last year the Bush administration seems to have realised the danger and is elaborating a policy response to the situation: a new headquarter command structure for the military tasked specifically with the whole of Africa (Egypt excluded), AFRICOM.

According to the homepage of the organisation:

U.S. Africa Command will better enable the Department of Defense and other elements of the U.S. government to work in concert and with partners to achieve a more stable environment in which political and economic growth can take place. U.S. Africa Command is consolidating the efforts of three existing headquarters commands into one that is focused solely on Africa and helping to coordinate U.S. government contributions on the continent.

This vague diplomatic-speak is not of much help in understanding the organisation unless we compare its statements with an extensive coverage of U.S. strategic thinking in Africa leading to AFRICOM. According to it, the U.S. wants to provide to its allies (along with development aid, bizarrely managed directly by the military) logistics, training and the service of advanced arms systems (such as air superiority fighter planes, attack helos and satellite imagery) while friendly troops fight on the ground. The U.S. hopes in this way to avoid taking casualties or handing sophisticated hardware into wrong hands, while maintaining effective control over the operations.

Advancing the project and gathering support among African leaders was one of the most important diplomatic objectives of the recent Africa trip (a BBC interview on this trip was covered critically by heathlander). The main selling point for co-operation this time around was a multi-billion health and development aid package.

Even with this sweetener, though, the result of the trip has been a disappointment: only one country (Liberia) has accepted to have AFRICOM structures on its soil, while several nations (including supposed allies like South Africa) have spoken against it and did not change their stance following the trip. The Bush administration, to avoid admitting defeat, was forced to backtrack and say that currently there are no plans to open bases in the continent. But if this is the case, is AFRICOM a command structure based in Germany, and with nothing to command on?

A think-tank lists two main reasons for the lack of appeal of AFRICOM on African leaders:

  1. U.S. officials have painted a confusing picture of an organization that seemingly plans to mix economic development and governance promotion activities […] with military activities. Africans, given the history of military coups that once plagued the continent, tend to regard this militarization of civilian space with great misgivings. […] Had AFRICOM backers in Washington restricted the new command’s agenda to counter-terrorism, the training of African military forces, military intervention for humanitarian purposes, the protection of oil and other energy sources and related strategic matters, their arguments would have been regarded as more credible.
  2. U.S. officials claim that AFRICOM will help improve transparency and strengthen democracy in Africa, but African analysts and policy makers point out that in Africa today there is little or no transparency in discussions of AFRICOM or of U.S. military relations with African states generally. They note that while AFRICOM has been debated extensively in the U.S. Congress, it has not been freely and openly discussed by the legislatures of the African states, even in countries that have been mentioned as possible sites for AFRICOM’s headquarters.

I would add that the reputation the U.S. earned following the Iraq invasion did not help, either. Ultimately, though, the idea of having to ask all the time for some military help, which might or might not come depending on the mood and interests of the U.S., is clearly a second-best to having relatively modern Made-in-China equipment at one’s disposal.
Compare that with what was offered to Western European countries after the end of the Second World war: aid (the Marshall plan) and a co-operation framework for military action (NATO). Now, if the U.S. does not trust African allies with letting them have a say on how its military equipment is going to be used, it can not expect the Africans to trust the U.S.

As AFRICOM stalls, China is laughing all the way to the oil well.


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