Hidden risks in African strategy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2012, 12:00am


China is enthusiastically flexing its diplomatic and economic muscle in Africa, promising more aid for the continent at a two-day African Union summit at the organisation's new, Chinese-funded headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

However, as the kidnapping of Chinese workers in Sudan last Saturday has shown, China is also facing increasing security risks while reaping the economic benefits of its African strategy.

China has been a key player in infrastructure and energy projects in Africa, and trade with the continent has increased from US$5 billion in 1995 to US$150 billion in 2010.

African leaders say Beijing has provided what the continent needs, but critics have accused China of practising neocolonialism and feigning an interest in African development solely to gain access to natural resources.

In a move that symbolises China's eagerness to improve ties, President Hu Jintao sent a greeting to the summit, stressing the 'brotherly' nature of the relationship.

'Consolidating China-Africa ties and seeking common development is an important foundation for our foreign affairs, and also a long-term strategic choice for China.'

China paid US$200 million for the African Union's brown marble-and-glass headquarters, the tallest building in Addis Ababa.

In his remarks at the summit, Jia Qinglin, chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, said Beijing would provide 600 million yuan (HK$738 million) in free assistance, without any political conditions, to the African Union over the next three years.

'The African nations have firmly supported the Chinese stance in issues that involve the core interests of China, and have provided strong support to China's economic development,' he said.

But China is facing hidden risks in the region, which is often plagued by conflicts, with occasional attacks targeting Chinese interests. Nine China Petroleum Engineering and Construction workers were kidnapped in Sudan in 2008, with five killed during a rescue attempt.

Analysts said various forces on the continent were attempting to use China's influence to put pressure on rivals.

Sudanese President Lieutenant General Omar al-Bashir asked Jia on the sidelines of the summit to put pressure on South Sudan over its decision to stop oil production.

'If there is a political motive behind the recent kidnapping incident in Sudan, it could be that some political groups are pushing the Sudanese government to make concessions on internal political issues through taking Chinese workers hostage, or they are exerting pressure on the Chinese government, demanding that China change its stance on some issues,' Qu Xing, head of the China Institute of International Studies, wrote in a commentary in the Global Times.

Professor John Lee, a China-watcher from the University of Sydney, said resentment of China's interests in Africa would continue.

'Beijing is very adept at forging cosy relations with political elites in weak countries ruled by authoritarian regimes,' he said. 'But Beijing's method is much less effective when there are cracks in these African regimes, since any local anger directed against these political elites is also directed towards Chinese entities in that country.

'In Africa, local populations want more benefits from economic deals done with Chinese state-owned enterprises and are increasingly willing to insist on these demands.'

Professor Xiao Xian from Yunnan University said Beijing needed to properly conduct risk assessments for its overseas interests.

He said some investors still believed that only Western interests would be targeted by opposition forces, and concentrated on making profits while ignoring the needs of local people.