Ever since the Berlin Conference of 1883, which Belgium's King Leopold II called "the sharing of Africa's cake," the West has assumed exclusive rights over sub-Saharan Africa. But while centuries of struggle to end colonial rule and apartheid have not changed this much, Western influence is now being challenged by China, which likewise covets Africa's rich reserves of minerals and resources.
China is winning goodwill across the continent by tapping into shared anti-colonial resentments -- and by treating the continent seriously. The next meeting, later this year, of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (CACF), established to promote trade and investment, will include 46 African heads of state, along with China's leaders. In any case, Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), Vice President Zeng Qinghong (曾慶紅) and Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) visit the continent regularly.
China's moves to strengthen its African ties have three objectives: to consolidate secure energy and mineral supplies, to curtail Taiwan's influence on the continent, and to augment China's burgeoning global authority.
China has invested billions of dollars in African oil production, mining, transportation, electricity production and transmission, telecommunications and other infrastructure. In 2004 alone, China's foreign direct investment in Africa represented US$900 million of the continent's total of US$15 billion.
Chinese representatives disbursed almost US$2.3 billion to acquire a 45 percent stake in one of Nigeria's offshore oil fields and promised to invest an additional US$2.25 billion to develop the reserves. Angola, which currently exports 25 percent of its oil production to China, was granted a US$2 billion loan in exchange for a contract to supply China 10,000 barrels of oil per day.
Sudan, which supplies 7 percent of China's total oil imports, has benefited from the largest Chinese investments. The China National Petroleum Corporation holds a 40 percent stake in the Greater Nile Petroleum Company and has invested US$3 billion in refinery and pipeline construction. Moreover, 4,000 People Liberation Army troops were deployed in southern Sudan to guard an oil pipeline.
Trade figures tell a similar story of growing influence. Sino-African trade grew by 700 percent during the 1990s, doubled between 2000 and 2003 to US$18.5 billion, and then jumped to US$32.2 billion in the first 10 months of last year. While trade and investment ties with China helped boost the continent's overall economic growth to a record-high 5.2 percent last year, China also canceled US$10 billion in bilateral debts from African countries.
Yet closer relations have brought controversy. African countries have become large buyers of Chinese weapons and military equipment. In so unstable a continent saturated with weaponry, pouring in more guns is hardly welcome. Yet, as Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong (
Of greater long-term concern is the support that China provides for Africa's authoritarian rulers. Growth without social justice merely prolongs the denial of decent living conditions to the majority of Africa's people for the benefit of a tiny rich minority.
The fact that China has, within a decade, overhauled Africa's balance of power, relegating the US and the UK to third and fourth place and challenging France for first place as the continent's main economic and commercial partner, has irked these competitors. France has stepped up its monitoring of China's African activities. To tie Europe closer to Africa, British Prime Minister Tony Blair even proposed eliminating the EU's agricultural subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy.