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Despite the global slump, China-Africa ties have never run so deep. By Chris Hennemeyer When South Africa denied the Dalai Lama a visitor’s visa last month, what might have been a minor diplomatic spat erupted into a much more damaging accusation: The South African government, it appeared, had caved to Chinese pressure to muzzle the ...

586632_090417_chinafirca2.jpg
586632_090417_chinafirca2.jpg

Despite the global slump, China-Africa ties have never run so deep.

By Chris Hennemeyer

Despite the global slump, China-Africa ties have never run so deep.

By Chris Hennemeyer

When South Africa denied the Dalai Lama a visitor’s visa last month, what might have been a minor diplomatic spat erupted into a much more damaging accusation: The South African government, it appeared, had caved to Chinese pressure to muzzle the Tibetan leader.

Human rights advocates might have been outraged, but economic observers were hardly surprised by South Africa’s choice. For decades, China has been at the heart of the African economy, and the relationship is fast growing. China’s People’s Daily reported in February that 2008 trade between China and Africa hit a record $107 billion, up 45 percent from the previous year. That trade will be even more important now. For African countries, China’s long-term strategic engagement in Africa is a sure bet, even as Western markets are running for the doors.

China’s economic incursion into Africa is not new; it has been the subject of much hand-wringing in Western policy circles in recent years. Despite the global economic downturn, China’s juggernaut economy is still racing along at a very respectable 6.1 percent annual growth, requiring a constant supply of Africa’s oil, iron ore, and other raw materials to sustain its momentum. Last year’s declines in commodity prices made African minerals a temporary bargain for Chinese buyers, but today the downward trend is starting to reverse itself. Copper prices, for example, are at their highest since October, thanks to expectations that demand from China will increase. Demand and prices for aluminum, lead, nickel, and zinc have also shot back up.

From the earliest days of decolonization, China saw Africa as a useful ally in its ideological and economic competition with the West and the Soviet Union; Beijing invested heavily in the friendship. Since the 1960s, China has built roads, thrown up presidential palaces and imposing soccer stadiums, and paved highways using Chinese companies and Chinese labor. The country sold hundreds of millions of dollars of knockoff AK-47 assault rifles to the continent. More positively, almost every cooking pot, plastic bucket, and radio purchased by Africans today was made in China.

Even during the global downturn, China’s 50-year investment in Africa is paying off, and its economic weight on the continent might soon exceed that of the West. Although U.S. trade with Africa has grown, it amounts to less than 1 percent of total U.S. direct investment abroad, and most American businesses, with the exception of petroleum companies, tend to avoid Africa, viewing its poverty and corruption as not conducive to profit making. Europe still remains Africa’s single largest trading partner, but its traditional dominance is no longer a foregone conclusion.

On visits to West Africa, I see a growing number of private medical facilities, shops, and restaurants run by Chinese families, often living modest lives among Africans. Two Chinese airlines now fly from Beijing to Lagos and Johannesburg, Africa’s economic capitals, a trend reciprocated with flights to China by African airlines such as Angola’s TAAG and South African Airways. The financial crisis will make all of these shifts toward China even more clear, as the crunch dampens any residual Western enthusiasm for “risky” emerging markets.

Africa’s economic reliance on China, however, comes with drawbacks that will only grow along with the relationship. China turns a blind eye to the human rights and environmental concerns that Western countries and corporations have been forced to take seriously, and Chinese firms have little use for Western standards of corporate accountability. Heavy-handed autocrats such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe have made good use of the Chinese largesse that comes free of moral hectoring and oversight.

The fears that China’s African escapades will undermine efforts to promote democracy and battle corruption are well-founded. But eventually, one hopes a pragmatic China will have its limits; the country recently backed out of naively ambitious plans to invest heavily in dysfunctional states like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guinea, for instance. When Beijing ultimately concludes that its African aspirations are best served by stable, law-abiding, democratic governments, China-Africa will be a union worth toasting.

 

Chris Hennemeyer has lived and worked in Africa for more than 20 years. He is currently working in the democracy and governance field in Washington, D.C.

 

HABIB KOUYATE/AFP/Getty Images

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