Beware the Chinese Dragon, Warn Analysts / Cape Times / Gerald Shaw

12 September 2008

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?, Kweku Ampiah and Snusha Naidu, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press

With trade and investment between Africa and China growing in phenomenal fashion, this important study exhorts African governments to build a relationship with China that will promote mutual economic benefit and development.

A panel of 16 Pan-African academic specialists explores various answers to the key question: what are China's intentions in Africa? Is this to be just another round of plunder of the continent's natural resources?

In a series of chapters the engagement of China with South Africa, Sudan, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and other African countries is critically examined.

The book grew out of a policy seminar hosted by the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town under the guiding hand of Adekeye Adebajo, executive director of the Centre. Kweku Ampiah, a Fellow in East African Studies at the University of Leeds, edited this volume with Sanusha Naidu, of the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch.

The editors set the scene in a wide-ranging introduction, outlining the ground covered by the learned contributors.

One view, we are told, holds that China's engagement with Africa is essentially aimed at finding export markets for its cheap manufactures, while accessing energy resources and raw materials.

A Brenthurst discussion paper notes that Asian countries will probably dominate manufactures such as footware and cheap clothing for the foreseeable future, inhibiting most African countries from starting to climb the industrial ladder.

So it is accepted that the most likely and rewarding growth path for many African states will be natural resources exploitation, agricultural self-sufficiency, high-value agro-exports, and expansion of service industries, including tourism.

Yet others contend that the economies of Africa are becoming overly dependent on commodity exports while ignoring the need to devise robust national industrial policies of their own. And if Africa is to integrate itself more effectively in the global economy, we gather, it has to shift the emphasis to secondary and tertiary production.

A chapter discussing Chinese foreign policy outlines Beijing's embarrassing dilemma in its relations with Sudan, in shielding the brutal Khartoum regime from a growing international consensus in favour of international action to halt the genocide in Darfur. The issue became a public relations disaster for China as the Beijing Olympics approached. The West concluded that China's efforts to influence Sudan over Darfur were necessary, but not sufficient.

China's relationship with the Democratic Republic of Congo is discussed in a chapter which recalls an $8 billion dollar draft agreement in September 2007 in which Chinese state-owned enterprises are to carry out mining development and infrastructure support - building roads, railways, power lines and power plants.

More than 30 hospitals will be built, with 145 health centres and four universities. China gets access to the mineral-rich Congo's natural resources.

Does the agreement herald a new era for this sorely-tried African nation? The author of this chapter, Devon Curtis, a lecturer in politics at Cambridge University, says the answer is "a cautious yes".

The size and scale of the infrastructural projects are enormous and some are likely to greatly improve the lives of many Congolese. But the details of many of the projects remain unclear. And Curtis sees no signs that the Chinese involvement is going to have a transformative effect on the nature of the Congolese state.

She concludes that it would be a mistake to assume that China and other outside powers will be the catalysts for progressive change, yet it must be hoped that the Chinese will not thwart any Congolese effort to engage in a different kind of politics.

Zimbabwe and South Africa's relations with China are also examined, and it is noted that after South Africa, China is Zimbabwe's largest trading partner. However, there are signs that China, which has a long-standing association with Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF, is reviewing its Zimbabwean involvement as the economy implodes.

South Africa is China's second largest trading partner in Africa. President Nelson Mandela's decision at the outset to recognise Beijing has paid off.

Yet trade with South Africa is weighted in China's favour. South Africa exports natural resources to China and imports manufactured and high-tech goods, and China dominates the trading relationship. At the same time South Africa is the only African country that has a notable corporate profile in China. SABMiller is the largest South African investor and others include Naspers/MIH, Freeplay, Anglogold Ashanti, Anglo American, Old Mutual, Sasol and Standard Bank, while the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China has taken a 20% stake in Standard Bank in South Africa.

The author concludes that it is only the political and economic elites in South Africa for whom the engagement with China is strategic. For the rest of ordinary South Africans, including members of trade unions, South Africa's relationship with China is anything but strategic or mutual.

South Africa's clothing and textile industry was the first casualty of China's entry into the South African market, with 60 000 workers losing their jobs and small-medium enterprises closing their doors. South Africa is seen to be the subordinate partner in the relationship. Summing up, the editors note that the China-Africa relationship is beset with problems. There is much international concern that China may well be another predator in Africa. The relationship between an industrialised economy and an economy based on natural resources and primary commodities is potentially exploitative.

It is up to African governments, they conclude, to ensure the national interest of their countries is not subordinated to those of China in the economic agreements they reach with Beijing.

Shaw, a former assistant editor of the Cape Times, is the author of Believe in Miracles - South Africa from Malan to Mandela and the Mbeki era

© Independent On-line 2008. All rights reserved.

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