A rising China counters US clout in Africa

Abraham McLaughlin – The Christian Science Monitor

Trade drives political role ahead of Zimbabwe’s election.
HARARE, ZIMBABWE – The Chinese economic juggernaut and its thirst for
minerals and markets has increasingly brought it to Africa, including
here to Zimbabwe. The fertile hills of this Southern African nation are rich
with gold and the world’s second-largest platinum reserves. In Sudan,
Angola, and along the Gulf of Guinea, the Asian giant is guzzling the
continent’s vast oil supply.
But lately the Chinese are digging on a different front, one that could
complicate the Bush administration’s efforts to promote democracy here:
African politics.
Last year, China stymied US efforts to levy sanctions on Sudan, which
supplies nearly 5 percent of China’s oil and where the US says genocide
has
occurred in its Darfur region. And as Zimbabwe becomes more isolated
from
the West, China has sent crates of T-shirts for ruling-party supporters
who
will vote in Thursday’s parliamentary elections.
In addition, China or its businesses have reportedly:
• provided a radio-jamming device for a military base outside the
capital,
preventing independent stations from balancing state-controlled media
during the election campaign;
• begun to deliver 12 fighter jets and 100 trucks to Zimbabwe’s Army
amid a
Western arms embargo; and
• designed President Robert Mugabe’s new 25-bedroom mansion, complete
with
helipad. The cobalt-blue tiles for its swooping roof, which echoes
Beijing’s Forbidden City, were a Chinese gift.
China is increasingly making its presence felt on the continent – from
building roads in Kenya and Rwanda to increasing trade with Uganda and
South Africa. But critics say its involvement in politics could help
prop
up questionable regimes, like Mr. Mugabe’s increasingly autocratic
25-year
reign.
“Suffering under the effects of international isolation, Zimbabwe has
looked to new partners, including China, who won’t attach conditions,
such
as economic and political reform” to their support, says a Western
diplomat
here. Of China’s influence on this week’s elections, he adds, “I find
it
hard to believe the Chinese would push hard for free and fair elections

it’s not the standard they’re known for.”
Indeed, Mugabe often praises China and Asia as part of his new “Look
East”
policy. He responded to tough questions from an interviewer on
Britain’s
Sky News last year about building his $9 million new home, while
millions
of Zimbabweans live on the verge of starvation, by saying: “You say
it’s
lavish because it is attractive. It has Chinese roofing material, which
makes it very beautiful, but it was donated to us. The Chinese are our
good
friends, you see.”
China is becoming good friends to many African nations, as the US has
been.
Between 2002 and 2003, China-Africa trade jumped 50 percent, to $18.5
billion, Chinese officials say. It’s expected to grow to $30 billion by
2006. US-Africa trade was $44.5 billion last year, according to the
Commerce Department. As the world’s largest oil importer behind the US,
China has oil interests in Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Angola, and Gabon. The
US
is also hunting for oil in Africa, with about 10 percent of imports
coming
from the continent.
Not all of China’s activities in Africa are controversial. Under the
auspices of the UN, the China-Africa Business Council opened this
month,
headquartered in China, to boost trade and development. It has
peacekeepers
in Liberia and has contributed to construction projects in Ethiopia,
Tanzania, and Zambia, though critics say it is using these projects to
garner goodwill that it can tap into during prickly issues like
Taiwan’s
independence or UN face-offs with the US.
Here in Zimbabwe, China also may be helping to support one of Africa’s
more
oppressive regimes. The radio-jamming equipment that has prevented the
independent Short Wave Radio Africa from broadcasting into the country
is
Chinese, according to the US-funded International Broadcast Bureau.
Reporters Without Borders, a group dedicated to freedom of the press,
based
in Paris, had this to say about the jamming: “Thanks to support from
China,
which exports its repressive expertise, Robert Mugabe’s government has
yet
again just proved itself to be one of the most active predators of
press
freedom.”
A Chinese diplomat here insists the equipment didn’t come from China.
And
he says the T-shirts, which reportedly arrived on Air Zimbabwe’s new
direct
flight from Beijing, were “purely a business transaction.” But he adds
that
China-Zimbabwe relations have recently “been cemented in the field of
politics and business.”
In return for its support, China has received diplomatic backing on
Taiwan’s independence, as it has from many African nations.
Ultimately, China’s expansion into Zimbabwe and Africa is more narrow
than
the 1800s colonization by European powers, when “Christianity,
civilization, and commerce” were the buzzwords. For China, it’s all
about
economics. “They’ve said: ‘If you agree to privatize and sell to us
your
railways, your electricity generation, etc. – we will come in with
capital,” says John Robertson, an economist based in Harare.
With an economy that has shrunk as much as 40 percent in five years,
Zimbabwe’s government uses these promises to put off critics. “The
government says, ‘The Chinese are coming, and they’ll bring in billions
of
dollars in investment, and soon everything will be fully restored,’ ”
Mr.
Robertson says.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *