China's Economic Focus on Africa is Mixed Picture, Scholar Says

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - China's rapid economic expansion in Africa is not a direct threat to U.S. interests but has lead the economic powerhouse to do business with some unsavory partners "shunned" by the West, says diplomat turned scholar David Shinn.

Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia in the mid-1990s, told his audience, "China’s approach to Africa has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War" when a main preoccupation was countering the political influence of Taiwan on the continent.  Currently, only six African nations - Burkina Faso, Chad, Gambia, Malawi, Sao Tome and Principe, and Swaziland recognize Taiwan diplomatically.

Shinn, who is now an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, lectured on "China’s Global Activism" in Africa at a National Defense University Pacific Symposium held at Fort Lesley McNair in Washington June 20.

China’s main goal now, Shinn said, is "to ensure that Africa remains a secure source for oil and raw materials, a growing market for Chinese exports, and a base of support for China’s expanding global interests."

This is not a bad goal and not one necessarily in conflict with U.S. interests on the continent, Shinn said.  But one result has been that some African countries shunned by the West, like Sudan and Zimbabwe, are collaborating with China.  These are countries with "poor human rights records, a sluggish record on democratization, and a propensity for corruption," he said.

"And many of them do not have to worry about sanctions or even unpleasant lectures when they interact with China," the former U.S. diplomat asserted.  China’s president recently made that point when he said his nation would do business "without any expectation that [African] governments will improve democracy, respect human rights, or fight corruption," Shinn said.

African oil is a big draw for China, the scholar told his audience.  In 2004, China surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest importer of petroleum after the United States.  More than 25 percent of China’s imported oil comes from Africa and "the percentage is growing significantly each year."


In addition, China also imports minerals from Africa to support its rapid industrial expansion.  China is the world’s largest consumer of copper and "imports a substantial part of its needs from Africa."  It depends increasingly on African ferrochrome, platinum, cobalt, iron, gold, silver and timber, Shinn said.

As a result, China has embraced countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe with those products for sale but that have "especially poor relations" with the West, he added.  The United States, European Union (EU) and United Nations have sanctioned both of those African nations for their continued abuse of democracy and human rights.

In April, a State Department spokesman said the United States would continue to work with the international community to press the Sudanese government to stop the violence in Darfur, rein in the Janjaweed militias, and "hold accountable all who are responsible for crimes against the people of Darfur."  (See Darfur Humanitarian Emergency.)

Nonetheless, China helps manage Sudan’s oil industry and receives about 7 percent of its total oil imports from Sudan now and Sudan has described China as its "most important partner," Shinn said.  When questioned in 2004 about its relationship with Sudan, China’s deputy foreign minister responded “'business is business.  We try to separate politics from business.'” 

In 2005, Beijing "warmly welcomed" Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe - a man who has also been "shunned by the West," Shinn said.  Plus, he said, China imports significant quantities of minerals from Zimbabwe and has become its second largest trading partner after South Africa.

In February, the State Department called on the government of Zimbabwe "to repeal its repressive media laws and to end the harassment of civil society groups and human rights activists."

The spokesman pointed out that the deterioration of the human rights environment in Zimbabwe was underscored by a December 2005 resolution of the African Union’s Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Another tactic China uses, said Shinn, is aggressive diplomacy.  "All African governments like high level attention from the world’s most important countries."

For example, Shinn said, it has become a tradition that each year China’s foreign minister visits Africa first.  In January 2006, the foreign minister went to Cape Verde, Senegal, Mali, Liberia, Libya, and Nigeria.  President Hu Jintao made well-publicized and substantively significant visits in April to Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya.

There are, however, potential grounds of conflict between the Chinese and Africans, Shinn said, especially among African environmental advocates about China’s "generally dismissive approach to good environmental practices."

China is the world’s largest importer of forest products.  Many of its purchases in Africa are from unlicensed loggers or from companies that do not engage in environmentally sound logging practices, Shinn charged.

There are other interest groups in many African countries that "tend to be wary of China," he added.  They include human rights activists, outspoken advocates for democracy and "those concerned about China’s export of arms to the continent."  Also, some governments, such as South Africa, have expressed concern about China’s arms policy on the continent, he said.

While "access to African resources is China’s primary interest … it does not yet have the influence across the continent that is exercised by the United States or the European Union - but it is fast reaching that point," Shinn said.