Africa looks to China as Western influence fades

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 June, 2010, 12:00am

As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and nowhere is this wry observation truer than in Africa.

Take the case of the missionary zeal displayed by the G8 nations towards solving Africa's problems, say analysts. Despite all their good intentions, the narrow grouping of advanced economies - France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, Canada, Russia and the United States - are losing influence to the wider group of 20 nations that combines the G8 with emerging countries including China.

'The G8 nations have lost considerable commercial advantage in Africa over the past 20 years for several reasons, not all of which have to do with the formidable rise of China's global status,' said Tara O'Connor, director of Africa Risk Consulting.

'G8 businesses have been ill served by their media. G8 media organisations have peddled stereotypes and portrayed Africa as the hopeless continent, mired in war, famine and destruction, when the truth was the opposite.

'Apparently intractable conflicts in Africa were ending, economic reforms were gaining hold and elections were giving popular voice to political reform,' O'Connor said.

Martyn Davies, executive director of the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, said: 'The G8's influence in Africa is rapidly waning and being replaced by Chinese influence. The long-term consequences may be profound for the continent, resulting in not only an economic shift but also having political ramifications.'

Failed promises, reduced foreign aid and disinvestment by traditional G8 investors in the past two years had hurt the standing of the group on the continent, said Davies.

Data for the G7 suggested the group would deliver only 61 per cent of its aid commitment to Sub-Saharan Africa by the end of this year, said One Campaign Group. Of the US$22.6 billion of increased aid promised by the G7 by the end of 2010, only US$13.7 billion looked set to be delivered, it said. One is a grass-roots campaign and advocacy organisation that was co-founded by Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2.

'The overwhelmingly humanitarian interest of many Western countries has led to stereotyped perceptions of Africa in terms of only problems. These views are increasingly patronising, out of touch and a deterrent to serious business,' said a report by Tom Cargill for Chatham House, a London think tank.

'The over-promising of what aid can deliver and the emphasis on aid to the exclusion of business have diminished the relevance of the G8 for Africa, mirroring the general shift in the global balance of power from West to East. The emerging economies of G20, including China, have brought entrepreneurialism, energy and recognition of mutual benefit that are increasingly attractive [to Africa],' wrote Cargill, of the Africa programme at Chatham House.

The Chatham House report gave a mediocre rating of G8 commitment to Africa from 2002 to 2009. On a scale of 0 (least compliant) to 1 (most compliant), G8 scored 0.3 in fostering trade, investment, economic growth and sustainable development. On all factors including health, education, debt relief, promoting peace and security, G8 rated 0.43.

'The G8 nations have not necessarily lost influence in Africa to China, but these days African countries can choose from different political and trading partners such as Brazil, India, Russia, China, and the Gulf States,' said Lucy Corkin, research associate at the Africa-Asia Centre at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

China was now the continent's second-largest trading partner after the US, wrote Cargill.

'China's desire to gain access to resources is well known, but almost equally important is its desire to tap Africa's billion-strong markets, which are consumers of cheap Chinese products.'

For example, China has become the largest investor in Zambia, having put in a cumulative total of US$2 billion in various sectors of the African country including mining, according to media reports.

China's US$4.5 billion infrastructure investment in Africa in 2007 was more than the G8 countries combined, according to the Public Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility, a multi-donor organisation managed by the World Bank.

China's trade with Africa soared 92.4 per cent from US$55.4 billion in 2006 to US$106.6 billion in 2008, according to Chatham House. From 1998 to 2008, China's trade with Africa grew tenfold, according to official Chinese data.

US trade with Africa grew at a slower pace of 41.9 per cent from US$102.8 billion in 2006 to US$145.9 billion in 2008, according to Chatham House. Apart from the energy sector, US investment in Africa has changed little in recent years, according to the report.

British business ties with Africa risked being hampered by the 2010 Bribery Act passed by the British Parliament in April, said Hugo Williamson, an Africa consultant.

Under this act, any action that can be construed as unfair influence, including providing meals and gifts, will be illegal. But in Africa, this way of doing business was the norm, Williamson said. This would restrict British businessmen in dealing with Africans, while opening the door for more Chinese involvement which was not hampered by such laws, he said.

Currently, a large Chinese state-owned firm, China National Petroleum Corp, is the biggest equity partner in all but one of Sudan's operational oilfields.

'The Chinese have since taken over much of Sudan's oil reserves with far less concern about human rights,' Williamson said.

However, O'Connor said the rise of China's economic influence in Africa would benefit everyone, if all parties managed it correctly.

China's involvement had introduced competition which was having an effect, as projects in Africa were more speedily executed, notably in infrastructure, she said.

Trade jump

China's trade with Africa soared by this percentage from US$55.4 billion in 2006 to US$106.6 billion in 2008: 92.4%