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A Different Kind of Great Game

Are China and the United States heading for a showdown over Africa?

STR/AFP/Getty ImagesRed carpet treatment: Not everyone was so welcoming on Hu Jintaos Africa trip.

In a trip that went almost totally unnoticed in the United States, Chinese President Hu Jintao took an eight-country jaunt across the African continent in early February, signing trade and investment agreements at every stop along the way, while forgiving debts and offering interest-free loans worth hundreds of millions more.

Within a weeks time, President Bush announced that a new combatant command for Africa, AFRICOM, would begin operations in September 2008. The new command will fill a gaping hole the United States has long left in its strategic concerns in Africa. The move to consolidate the U.S. militarys responsibilities toward the continent reflects the United States worry about the dangers that could rise from Africas weaknesses, such as its failing states and its increasing Islamic militancy.

The fact that Hus visit and the announcement of AFRICOM coincided was most likely a coincidence. The Pentagon has been planning AFRICOM for years, and Chinas involvement in Africa is hardly new. That said, its obvious that both powers are sinking more assets into the continent at a time of growing instability and greater competition for resources. Although they may be ultimately drawn to Africa for different reasons, the United States and China could be headed for a collision in the most unlikely of places.

Chinas interests in Africa are overwhelmingly economic. Gone are the days when Chinas main interest in African countries was to ensure that they didnt establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan. For the resource-hungry Chinese, Africas oil and mineral deposits are enticing, and the continent has provided a growing market for cheap Chinese textile goods. Chinas trade with Africa rose from $10.6 billion in 2000 to about $55 billion in 2006, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao says China intends to increase trade with the continent to $100 billion by 2010.

A good chunk of this trade has to do with African oil. China has accounted for a full 40 percent of the total growth in global demand for oil over the last four years, and has shot past Japan as the worlds second-largest consumer of oil behind the United States. Just this past January, the Chinese energy company CNOOC Ltd. announced plans to purchase a 45 percent stake in an offshore Nigerian oil field for $2.27 billion.

For the United States, the calculus for getting more involved in Africa is vastly different. While the worlds attention has been riveted on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan for the past six years, countries in the Horn and northern Africa have seen an alarming increase in interstate conflict. There is also the resurgent Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a terrorist group in Algeria that has just changed its name to the Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb. AFRICOMs portfolio will be to monitor these conflicts and groups, train indigenous militaries to confront terrorist threats, and to respond militarily, as in Somalia this past winter, when the situation arises. All that comes on top of the continued humanitarian missions regularly conducted by the Pentagon in various African countries such as Liberia. Washington now believes that the potential threats emanating from Africa are significant enough to warrant a single, coherent command structure devoted to the continent, as opposed to the past system of several combatant commands sharing responsibility and potentially working at cross purposes.

But these motivationsa pursuit of energy resources and desire to quell the most dangerous forms of instabilitywill probably not lead to any direct conflicts between the United States and China any time soon, if ever. Rather, if these two powers are going to come to blows in the near term, it will most likely be in the diplomatic and development arena. Although a geostrategic competition over oil supplies in Africa remains unlikely, a greater concern, according to Alex de Waal, a fellow at the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard University, is the way in which the peace and security and democracy agenda has been jeopardized by the Chinese weighing in with large scale uncritical support of Sudan, of Zimbabwe, and Angola.

For years, China has been offering loans, building critical infrastructure, and providing engineering and military advice and hardware to African regimes without extracting any promises that the regimes clean up their human rights recordssomething Western countries insist upon before aid is shipped. This uncritical support of its African partners has allowed China to make diplomatic inroads on the continent, since it provides aid without strings attached, as opposed to the Western approach of basing aid on human rights and good governance benchmarks that many African regimes are unwilling, or slow, to make. Put simply, an African farmer would rather have a Chinese road built from his village to the market today, rather than wait for an American or World Bank road to be built only after the government makes the required reforms. Thus, its on human rights and governance, not oil or strict security matters, that the interests of the United States and China will likely collide.

In such a fight, Chinas unfettered aid would seem to have the upper hand. But that may not necessarily be so. In places like South Africa and Nigeria, the flood of textiles has displaced a lot of people in the textile industry, says Jennifer Cooke, co-director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Africa Program. And as they get more engaged, theyre going to be pushed to take up issues like worker conditions and employment quotas and corporate social responsibility issues that U.S. companies were pushed to do over the 1970s and 1980s.

Already, there is evidence of demands for more responsibility. Hus planned visit to Zambia was marred by the threat of protests. Unsafe working conditions at Chinese-run copper mines and the low wages paid to local workers at Chinese businesses emerged as campaign issues in last falls Zambian presidential election. And in late 2006, Gabon forced a Chinese energy company to stop drilling for oil due to environmentally unsafe practices, and South African textile trade unions are loudly pressing their government to curb Chinese apparel and textiles imports.

Given their competing approaches to the continentthe humanitarian and military approach favored by the United States, and the purely economic policy favored by Chinaits clear that Africa will be the scene of some major disagreements between the two powers. The United States uneven track record in the war on terror doesnt inspire much confidence, but the fact that Africa will no longer be split among several military commands is cause for some hope. It remains to be seen, however, if African regimes prefer the quick investment that China is willing to provide, or the less tangible, longer-term health and stability that the United States is promising.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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