January 18, 2011

Resource Hungry: China’s Strategic Hand in Africa

This week, Chinese President Hu Jintao will make a pivotal visit to Washington, spotlighting various issues with the White House and the American people. Most likely, North Korea, currency concerns, and Iran’s nuclear program will occupy the agenda. While no major agreements are expected from the visit, Hu will seek to cheerfully reiterate – through meetings with think tank and congressional leaders along with a cameo in Chicago – the “strategic significance and global impact of China-U.S. relations.”

In the lead up to Hu’s visit, last Friday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made remarks at the inaugural Richard Holbrooke lecture, touching on an array of aspects comprising the U.S.-China relationship, notably international development. Secretary Clinton took a somewhat critical tone towards Chinese development practices, encouraging the Chinese to “embrace internationally recognized standards and policies that ensure transparency and sustainability” and noting that Beijing’s activities have raised serious concerns in places such as Africa.

It is not surprising that Secretary Clinton put “development practices,” “Africa,” and “serious concerns” in the same sentence, as Chinese investment in Africa has captured the attention and concern of many U.S. officials. As recent WikiLeaks cables showed, one senior diplomat even views China as "a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals.”

It is no secret that in the quest to export jobs and satisfy domestic demands for an array of energy resources, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, Chinese interest and investment in Africa have simultaneously increased in the last decade. From 1980 to 2005, bilateral trade between the two multiplied fiftyfold. China is now Africa's largest trading partner and bilateral trade grew more than 43% to nearly $115 billion in 2010.

Indeed, the Chinese business plan in Africa is simple: in exchange for access to vital resources, the Chinese offer massive infrastructure and/or development projects, the majority of which are supplied with Chinese workers and completed by Chinese construction companies. Further, the Chinese offer a “no-strings attached” policy, one that many, often controversial, African regimes can’t resist and that many U.S. officials – most recently Secretary Clinton, as indicated by her statement Friday – view as problematic.

Chinese investment does not seem to be slowing any time soon. For instance, China announced a few months ago that it is investing over US$1 billion in industrial, education, farming and health projects in Zimbabwe in the next three years. In spring 2008, the Chinese signed a deal with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) stipulating the Chinese would gain access to around 11 million tons of copper and 620,000 tons of cobalt over the next 25 years in exchange for building 1,800 miles of railways, 2,000 miles of roads, two new universities, new copper and cobalt mines, and hundreds of schools and hospitals in the country.

As China augments its investment in resource-rich countries such as Angola, Zambia, South Africa, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, many questions remain unanswered, especially those posed by the United States. For example, is it really possible to think that China will embrace international standards and policies as Secretary Clinton is proposing? How can China and the United States work closely together in Africa to pursue common, international standards when the reason why China has been successful on the continent is because it avoids embracing global standards and instead opts for a no-strings-attached, resource-centric policy? As China illustrates its commitment to development in Africa, is it fruitless on the part of the United States to think that Beijing will sideline its national interests in order to acquiesce to international – Western created – development norms?

Furthermore, what are the potential implications for African democracy programs and the advancement of civil society institutions as the “Chinese model” proliferates? More importantly, in a natural security context, how can African governments mitigate their vulnerability to future resource exploitation by Chinese investors while comprehensively maximizing any benefit for their citizens?

Certainly, these questions won’t be addressed during President Hu’s visit this week and it will remain ambiguous how Sino-African relations will impact the U.S.-China relationship in the years ahead. However, while Chinese development in Africa will most likely have future diplomatic and economic implications for the United States, for now it serves to spotlight one more region of the world where we are competing – for diplomatic, economic, and resource control – with an ascendant, resource hungry Beijing.

Thanks to Bailey, now finishing grad school, a veteran of CNAS's Asia-Pacific team and watcher of natural security issues on the Korean peninsula and beyond. Her previous posts for this blog include "Natural Insecurity in the Hermit Kingdom."