Grand Patterns in the China-Africa Relationship

Thursday, February 19, 2009 

By Bright B Simons  

Bright SimonsACCRA, Ghana – Analysts looking for grand, coherent patterns in Chinese President Hu Jintao’s first overseas trip in the Year of the Ox are tearing their hair out in frustration.

There are just too many to choose from and bind together.

It would have been easy to tie it all down to China’s recent economic infection from the global financial contagion. In that scheme of things, one could have said that Hu’s visit to Africa was part of the ongoing effort to diversify China’s export markets away from their fatal dependence on Western profligates. China’s trade with Africa has expanded 1,000% this decade to an astoundingUS$100 billion plus, a significant proportion of which is made up of Africa-bound Chinese consumables.

But look closely and another vortex pops out of the design: the visit to the four African countries is actually one plank in what seems to be a multi-prong diplomatic offensive aimed at consolidating some kind of Southern Hemisphere solidarity in anticipation of an era of mercantilist alliances arrayed to the effect of greater multilateralism and the breaking of Euro-American economic hegemony.

Thus while Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is being kept busy at home shoring up confidence in the southern export machine through staged visits to the shrinking enclaves of roaring capitalist success on the country’s southern coast, Vice President Xi Jinping has been neck-deep in diplomatic intrigue in Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia and Jamaica.

At the same time, Vice Premier Hui Liangyu has been asked to ride on China’s recent membership into the Inter-American Development Bank (IABD) to worm his way into the hearts of Ecuadorian, Argentinean, Barbadian and Bahamian opinion leaders with assurances of more funds to follow on the $350 million that sealed China’s membership in the IABD.

Hu begun this current African expedition in Saudi Arabia, China’s biggest supplier of oil globally and largest trade partner in the Gulf, before jetting to the four African countries on his schedule: Senegal, Mali, Tanzania and Mauritius, which for the more imaginative analysts provide another bolt in the theory that in China’s strategic perspective, somewhat similar to the marketing approach of some Western multinationals, Africa and the Middle East are fused (ponder the unease of some China-skeptic Indian strategists at the inclusion of the Indian Ocean state of Mauritius).
Having painted this elegant portrait of the African visits as embedded in an overarching Chinese framework of geostrategic positioning, encompassing Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, gleeful observers are naturally inclined to dismiss the more mundane spin put on the issue by Chinese diplomats. The Chinese ambassador in Senegal, to name one such spin doctor, was almost frantic in his apologies: none of the four African countries is resource-rich, therefore the visits demonstrate that China’s notion of "traditional friendship with Africa" by far trumps any Chinese interest in the flow of commodities between the agrarian continent and the once-booming Asian giant. Observers nodded absent-mindedly and rushed hurriedly to conjure better-tasting intrigue.

Some commentators chose to develop the earlier portrait of Chinese efforts, as encircling the West in anticipation of a beckoning Machiavellianism and mercantilism in global trade, commerce and geopolitics in the wake of the financial crisis, and noted that while China had twice the size of sub-Saharan Africa’s population, it nevertheless had one vote on the floor of various United Nations agencies, as compared to 50 some for Africa. Hu’s choice of country visits, based on such logic, could thus only have been motivated by the desire to visit as many African countries as possible, and to engage in a powerful, if also political capital intensive, "geo-symbolism" that will manifest its usefulness should the growing outcry of a new world economic order lead to a greater multilateralism and its attendant universal international suffrage.

Such a view, as has been mentioned already, is of course not merely compatible with but in actual fact integral to the hard diplomacy of imprinting a Chinese signet on a new economic globalization. Nor should it be found wanting should the fact be established, as many now suspect, that China’s economy, long fueled by speculation of diverse kinds, is tottering on the brink. For even if the Chinese miracle is a Ponzi scheme, incessant and diversified expansion would surely be its most prudent guarantee of perpetuation, and the growing South, more so than the mature North, would be the best source of fresh vitality, not least because it must be Northern interests that are now fleeing the putative paper tiger they had themselves inflated.

And the Africans? Some lament that the African countries sucked into this maelstrom they can hardly appreciate, and whose tendency is to misidentify every star for a firefly, have almost blindly marched themselves into an addiction they are going to struggle very hard to break. Before Hu set off for Africa, Angola’s Dos Santos was in Beijing begging for more money to plug gaping holes in his country’s finances after betting wrongly on the trend of oil prices. Namibia, a regional neighbor of Angola, has also made similar pleas to China with regard to a considerable infrastructure development bill the country’s leaders had assumed will be picked up by China altruistically rather than as part of concessions favoring Chinese labor interests.

The growing dependency of countries like Angola, Namibia, Zambia and Ethiopia on Chinese largesse, exacerbated by the increasing integration of Chinese strategy into those country’s growth sectors, as for instance in the recent use of "trade and economic cooperation zones" to guide Chinese penetration into local market nerve centers, have provided fodder for some analysts concerned with the larger meaning of Hu’s visit. This school of commentators has much circumstantial evidence at hand, only the most striking of which needs be examined.

China’s largest private equity fund is Africa-focused, but like other Chinese investment vehicles on the continent, it obeys nearly no international guidelines on capital investment, frequently trading the most mismatched of asset classes for one another and shrouding every deal in the densest opacity. The argument is that such an approach is strategic: it ties the hands of individual target-country elites and renders much less problematic the project of sustainable economic control, and certainly so in comparison with the national-systemic approaches favored by Western operators. As if on cue, the Tanzanian leg of Hu’s visit threw up another such circumstantial piece.

It has been announced that half of the Tanzanian state airline would be sold to a shady Chinese conglomerate dominant in the Angolan oil and infrastructure industry, but the terms of payments are steeped in characteristic ambiguity. Sources mention that an oil concession is involved. Tanzania is on the cusp of commercial oil production. The talk in Tanzania is that every precept in the national rule book is being breached. Perhaps, in furtherance of the elite circumcision theory raised above?

Indeed the last point throws up the most fascinating, and by the same score most circumstantial, piece of analysis to emerge in the wake of this latest Sino-African diplomatic pageant. Forget about the grand geopolitics: the driving force of at least a considerable part of this Sino-African-Gulf-Americas nexus is plain old grand corruption.

This intriguing viewpoint is woven from threads running through several of the discussions above. The "shady Chinese conglomerate" is China Sonangol International, an investment vehicle designed in 2004 to carry the Sino-Angolan oil trade. Now, there has been much whispered about the legendary wealth of Angola’s leader, Eduardo Dos Santos; a certain missing $1 billion dollars in Angolan state funds; the murkiness of Chinese investments in the Angolan petroleum sector and the actual delivery of the oil to China; and about the growing but opaque intertwining of Chinese and Angolan state-connected corporate interests towards a monopolization of the energy and construction sectors, of which Sonangol is itself a prime example.

What is most interesting however is an incident in 2004, which elicited the earliest tentative clues with regard to the possibility of "geo-economic graft" in these affairs. This was the famous Enarsa-Sonangol joint venture in Argentina. The bizarre introduction of Angolan interests in what was a Sino-Argentinean deal initially baffled observers for its defiance of standard geo-economic treatment, until a new lens – that of pure inter-elite collusion – was trained on the issue. To date, the full details of the Angolan involvement remain shrouded in secrecy.

Thus, while geopolitical framing and geo-economic posturing remains the prime backdrops for analyzing Chinese diplomatic activities in Africa, such as the just-ended Hu visit, a new trend is emerging in the Sino-African analysis discipline that, although young and less grounded in rich evidence, is powerfully stressing a new approach to deciphering the driving currents of the Sino-African relationship. It asks simply that observers deflect some of the attention from the grand and elaborate politics of world affairs to the more elementary relationships and incentives of the individuals at the center of these mighty chapters in the Sino-African saga.

Observers of the above mind are, one would imagine, poring over Hu’s dinner lists at the African State Houses, more so than the communiques.

Bright B Simons is an executive at IMANI-Ghana, a think-tank voted the sixth-most influential in Africa this year by Foreign Policy Magazine.  This article first appeared in the Asia Times online.