China expands its African ties

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 July, 2012, 12:00am


China is expected to cement political ties with more African countries after more than a decade of massive investment, making itself an important player in the continent's security issues, when leaders and ministers meet today for a co-operation forum, analysts said.

The Forum for China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing will see China boost its influence in the continent, with President Hu Jintao to announce new measures to strengthen co-operation in areas such as investment, finance and security, the foreign ministry said.

Two documents on strengthening co-operation will be signed tomorrow, when the forum concludes.

Attendance at the triennial ministerial forum, first held in Beijing in 2000, is widely seen as a measure of China's increasing influence in the continent. The last meeting, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt in 2009, was attended by foreign or economic ministers and representatives from China and 49 African countries.

China's total direct investment in the continent had reached US$15.3 billion by April, up from less than US$500 million a decade ago.

China, in return, receives resources from the continent to meet its rising energy needs. China's imports from Africa, including oil and iron ore, reached US$93.2 billion last year, up 38.9 per cent year on year.

Analysts said that Beijing would inevitably find itself more involved in the domestic political affairs of African countries as investment and trade expanded, and that China was stepping up its participation in peace-keeping on the continent, supplying arms to African countries and engaging with the continent more in international institutions.

'China's role and status is different now,' said Professor Xiao Xian , an international studies specialist at Yunnan University. 'China's stake and interest has expanded to every corner of the African continent and it is necessary for Beijing to strengthen political ties with the continent, which can better protect its investment interests.'

In January, China handed over a new, US$200 million African Union headquarters complex in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Three months later, South Sudan President Salva Kiir lobbied for economic and diplomatic support from China during a trip to Beijing, saying his visit was critical because his country was under attack by Sudan.

The British research group Safer World said in a report: 'Through its diplomatic relations and growing economic role - not to mention through its co-operation on military affairs and trade in arms - China already has an impact on the internal affairs of many African countries.'

China has sent special envoys to African countries and has sent nearly 1,600 peacekeeping troops and police to six places in Africa. Since it launched an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden in 2009, China has offered protection to 4,000 vessels.

Although China has no permanent military presence on the continent, it has given financial assistance to the development of the continent's military infrastructure, supported mine clearance efforts and helped train African armed forces.

China is also one of the major arms suppliers to sub-Saharan Africa. A report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute revealed that China was the top arms supplier to the region between 2006 and 2010, gaining 25 per cent of market share, up from just 9 per cent between 2001 and 2005.

Beijing has been accused of selling arms to regimes and organisations that violate human rights and United Nations arms embargoes, but analysts said China's arms deals with African states are used to cement political ties as part of its wider diplomacy, especially as Western countries refuse to supply them.

Analysts said Beijing is stepping up its political and security influence in the continent because China's quest for resources has drawn the country into internal conflicts, with its oil installations and workers being targeted by armed groups.

John Lee, a China watcher at the University of Sydney's Centre for International Security Studies, said the attacks and the change of regimes in African countries had made Beijing realise that merely pouring money into the continent was not enough.

'Beijing will have to be more proactive in terms of reading the political tea leaves in these countries,' he said.

Lee said the offering of 'no strings attached' loans and other financial agreements was likely to remain the primary way for China to strengthen ties with Africa, but he said that China would also back up African countries in international organisations.

'China will also continue to offer institutional support through organisations such as the United Nations Security Council in terms of tempering or vetoing potential resolutions against human rights abuses.'

Lu Shaye , director general of the Department of African Affairs at the Foreign Ministry, said yesterday that China and African countries would strengthen security co-operation. 'China and Africa will discuss security issues [more often],' he said.

Lu also hit back at critics who argued that China's non-interference policy in Africa meant the country is not fulfilling its responsibility to maintain peace in the region. He said that China was backing African countries to tackle internal conflicts based on their own wish and needs.

'The international community could show more support to Africa by interfering less in its conflicts,' Lu said.

He Wenping , an African affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing would also engage African countries more through multilateral platforms, such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) bloc.

'African countries face chaos and uncertainty from time to time, and this is a risk facing Chinese interests,' she said. 'Sometimes China is involved in domestic conflicts against its own wishes. Better ties will enable Beijing to better estimate the risk.'