June 22, 2011 | World Defense Review

China Goes on Safari

By Dr. J. Peter Pham

Understandably, the foreign policy focus of United States policymakers and media has been trained lately primarily on the ongoing events in the Greater Middle East, especially on the fight against terrorism, whether it is being fought by the U.S. or by allies like Israel.

When attention has been given to Africa, including in this column, it has been largely due to immediate security concerns, like the continuing humanitarian crisis in Sudan and the threatening developments in Somalia. Consequently, long term strategic challenges tend to get short-shrifted amid the overwhelming pressures of more immediate preoccupations. As a result, a concern for potential challenges to American interests like that posed by the increasing economic and political engagement of the People's Republic of China (PRC) across the continent has gone largely unaddressed.

Yet, as I argue in a lengthy study in the current issue of American Foreign Policy Interests, the journal of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, apart from the Central Eurasian region on its own northwestern frontier, perhaps no other foreign region rivals Africa as the object of Beijing's sustained strategic interest in recent years. In fact, at a deeper level, there are certain unsettling linkages between the PRC's interests in Africa and some of the other challenges arising from the continent.

Many of the analysts who have followed these developments have largely ascribed them to China's need to secure access to energy resources.

While demand for oil is certainly an important factor driving the PRC's relations with some African states, it would be remarkably shortsighted to view all of China's interests on the continent through this one prism.

In fact, this past January, ahead of Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing's visit to six African countries, Beijing published the first ever official government paper elaborating the PRC's policy toward Africa. While the document diplomatically (and somewhat ambiguously) listed the general principles of Chinese strategy towards Africa as “sincerity, friendship, and equality,” “mutual benefit, reciprocity, and common prosperity,” “mutual support and close coordination,” and “learning from each other and seeking common development,” more concretely these objectives can be translated as quests for resources, business opportunities, diplomatic initiatives, and strategic partnerships.

The quest for resources. The dynamic Chinese economy, which has averaged 9 percent growth per annum over the last two decades, nearly tripled the country's GDP, has also resulted in the country having an almost insatiable thirst for oil as well as a need for other natural resources to sustain it. The PRC has been a net importer of petroleum since 1993, and has increasingly relied on African countries as suppliers. As of last year, China was importing approximately 2.6 million barrels per day (bbl/d), which accounts for about half of its consumption; more than 765,000 bbl/d – roughly a third of its imports – came from African sources, especially Sudan, Angola, and Congo (Brazzaville).

To get some perspective on these numbers, consider that one respected energy analyst has calculated that while China's share of the world oil market is about 8 percent, its share of total growth in demand for oil since 2000 has been 30 percent. The much publicized purchase, in January of this year, of a 45 percent stake in an offshore Nigerian oilfield for $2.27 billion by the state-controlled China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) was just the latest in a series of acquisitions dating back to 1993 whereby the three largest Chinese national oil companies – China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), and CNOOC, respectively – have acquired stakes in established African operations.

Business opportunities. The PRC policy paper forthrightly declares: “The Chinese government encourages and supports Chinese enterprises' investment and business in Africa, and will continue to provide preferential loans and buyer credits to this end.”

Currently over 700 Chinese state companies are doing business in Africa, carving out a significant market share not only in the highly competitive scramble for natural resources, but also in sectors that Western corporations have either neglected or even abandoned altogether as being less profitable. Propelled by a Sino-African trade that has grown a prodigious 700 percent in the last decade, the PRC is now the continent's third most-important trading partner, behind the United States and France, and ahead of Britain. In May, for example, China agreed to lend Nigeria $1 billion to modernize its railways. The announcement of the loan came just a week after China Railway Construction won a bid to build 528 kilometers of Algeria's 1,216-kilometer East-West Highway, beating American, German, and Japanese competitors.

Diplomatic initiatives. Alongside – and some might suggest, behind – the economic and commercial ventures has been a series of intensive diplomatic initiatives, aimed first at isolating Taiwan, but also at an increasingly broad range of global objectives. Currently, the PRC has diplomatic relations with 48 of Africa's states, the most recent being Senegal, which resumed ties in October 2005 after a decade-long hiatus during which the West African nation had dealings with Taiwan. In exchange for their diplomatic support, China has provided a limited, but still not inconsiderable, amount of development assistance to African countries.

In addition to bilateral relations, China has also made a concerted effort to engage Africa on a multilateral basis. In 1999, then President Jiang Zemin wrote to the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) to propose the creation of a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the first ministerial meeting of which took place the following year in Beijing with some forty-four African states participating. And just last month, Firmino Mucavale, director of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), went to Beijing to sign a memorandum of understanding with FOCAC to strengthen strategic cooperation with the Chinese-led group in NEPAD's priority areas.

Building strategic partnerships. While China's Africa policy has always sought immediate returns – the recent government paper acknowledges that “China has provided assistance to the best of its ability to African countries, while African countries have also rendered strong support to China on many occasions” – its true objectives are also far-sighted.

Perhaps the overriding preoccupation of China's foreign policy on a grand strategic level is America's status as the post-Cold War world's only political, economic, and military superpower.

Even before the advent of the George W. Bush administration, which came into office voicing concern about the challenge that the PRC posed to America in the new century and whose latest iteration of the National Security Strategy pronounced China's transition “incomplete” and criticized its “old ways of thinking and acting,” in the post-Cold War period Washington has taken or threatened to take action on a host of issues, ranging from human rights to trade access to the status of Taiwan, which, at least by its lights, adversely affected Beijing. Thus the PRC has increasingly predicated its pursuit of “peaceful rise” on a vision of “democracy in international relations” (by which it means opposition to any unipolarity in the international system) for which it requires allies with whom to make common cause in international organizations and other multilateral settings.

In this context, the PRC's focus on Sino-African relations makes strategic sense. African countries potentially make up the largest single bloc in any international organization in which they participate. Furthermore, both the geographic distance and the development gap between them prevent China's geopolitical and economic interests from clashing with those of African states in the way that, Beijing's best efforts notwithstanding, they are bound to collide at some point with those of its nearby neighbors.

The PRC's courtship of Africa has not gone unrequited. Africa's interests, both state and private, have found themselves in complement with those of China. Premier Wen assured the 2003 China-Africa Cooperation summiteers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that Chinese assistance comes “with the deepest sincerity and without any political conditionalities,” a pledge reiterated by President Hu Jintao the following year when, during his state visit to Gabon, the Chinese head of state declared that the PRC's relations with the continent would be “free of political conditionality and serving the interest of Africa and China.”

Not surprisingly, words like these have found particular resonance with the likes of Hu's host, Gabon's El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba, who enjoys the dubious distinction of being Africa's longest serving head of state with nearly four decades in power during which time he has made more state visits to China (nine) than any other world leader.

Perhaps the most well-known beneficiary of Beijing's “don't ask, don't tell” position has been Sudan where, with its ownership of thirteen of the fifteen largest companies and purchase of more than 50 percent of the crude oil, China is both the largest foreign direct investor in and the largest customer of the country's emergent petroleum production. As French journalist Jean-Christophe Servant observed in Le Monde Diplomatique: “The cynicism of the government in Beijing became apparent in September 2004, when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1564, announcing an embargo on arms sales to Sudan. China's UN ambassador, Wang Guangya, used the massacres in Darfur as a pretext for threatening to veto the resolution, before finally abstaining. The United States-proposed resolution had already been significantly watered down.”

A report published in June by Amnesty International accused the PRC of providing hundreds of military vehicles, manufactured by the Dong Feng Company in Hubei, to the Khartoum regime in 2004 at the height of the Darfur conflict. United Nations investigators furthermore found that most of the arms being used by the Janjaweed are Chinese, although it is uncertain whether they were imported or manufactured in Chinese-built arms factories near Khartoum.

The 2006 National Security Strategy of the United States declares that “Africa holds growing geo-strategic importance and is a high priority of this Administration – “as it should be for a region that currently supplies America with 16 percent of its petroleum needs and which, according to a report prepared for the National Intelligence Council, will be providing more than one-quarter of its oil imports by 2015, thus surpassing the total volume of oil imports from the Middle East.

Consequently, the growing influence of any major actor on the continent – especially one as dynamic as ascendant China – bears very careful watching.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.