China's wooing of a coy Africa
In the 1960s and 1970s, Chinese engineers were hard at work throughout Africa, constructing stadiums, laying down roads and building hospitals. These goodwill projects faded in the 1980s after Beijing became preoccupied with building socialism back at home. However, a fast-growing China with a voracious appetite for resources and markets is now back with a vengeance.
Between 2002 and 2003, two-way trade climbed 50 per cent to US$18.5 billion. And it is tipped to further soar to US$30 billion by 2006.
China's rampant economic expansion - and resulting appetite for raw materials - is the major factor driving the country's long march across the African continent. It is searching the world for new energy sources, and Africa is fast becoming an important supplier.
Beijing has pressed history to promote its economic agenda, attempting to win African sympathy by emphasising the common history of exploitation that China and African nations have suffered at the hands of western colonialists.
Still, there is some debate among Africans over whether China is exploiting or benefiting their continent. Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, wrote that China 'is both a tantalising opportunity and a terrifying threat to South Africa'. He added that exports from China and Hong Kong to his country are double those from Africa and almost double what South Africa exports to China. He went on to say that imports from emerging Asian countries like China are goods his country is able to produce itself.
Many African nations are pleased that no political strings are attached to China's friendship - with the obvious exception that they must not recognise Taiwan and must affirm the 'one China' policy. China and Africa share the view that countries should not meddle in each other's affairs.
Sudan is one example. China National Petroleum Corporation won an oil exploitation bid there in 1995, and when Washington cut ties two years later, the Chinese were ready to fill the void. They helped develop oil fields and built refineries. Sudan now earns some US$2 billion in oil exports each year, half of which goes to China.
But more important for Sudan is Beijing's political support. China has vowed to veto any proposed sanctions. When the UN Security Council tabled a resolution last September to punish Sudan for failing to stop atrocities in Darfur, it was forced to water down the proposal to avoid a Chinese veto.
International pressure is growing for Beijing to use its political influence to pressure Sudan. Some observers say that China, which relishes its relatively new position as an international mover, will not want to be seen as an obstacle to the solution of the Sudan problem.
The question is whether or not Beijing is willing to sacrifice oil and its African partnerships to salvage its international image as a responsible global force.
Paul Mooney, a freelance journalist, has been reporting on China for 15 years
Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online