U.S. Official Dispels "Alarmist Views" of China in Africa

By Jim Fisher-Thompson
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington -– The United States does not regard China's emerging interest in Africa as a security threat, says an African affairs specialist at the State Department.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs James Swan says he wants to dispel "alarmist views" appearing in the press and even in scholarly journals concerning China's growing interest and influence in Africa.  Swan spoke February 9 at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

China’s role in Africa has become such a hot topic, Swan told the scholars, that the U.S. State Department hosted a conference on China in Africa in December 2006 following China's Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, held earlier in Beijing, which drew 43 African heads of state and representatives from five other African nations.

The Beijing meeting was significant, Swan said, because it attracted more African leaders "than normally attend an African Union summit on the continent."

Chinese President Hu Jintao again is touring Africa during February, his third visit in three years. In what Swan called a "sober, realistic look" at China's engagement with the nations of sub-Saharan Africa, he told the Columbia University audience that China's policy "motivations and intentions" are not unusual for a large and growing global power.

In recent decades, he said, China has re-emerged as a major economic, diplomatic and military entity on the world scene. "It is important that we see China's role on the continent within this broader context," he added.

China has important interests in Africa, Swan said, which include access to resources and markets and the pursuit of diplomatic allies.  "None of these is inherently threatening to U.S. interests. And because China has real interests there," he explained, "it will, of course, be engaged on the continent," as is the United States.

Swan said U.S. policy is "not to curtail China’s involvement in Africa, but to seek cooperation where possible; moderate negative influences in some key areas, especially governance and human rights; and continue efforts to nudge China toward becoming a responsible international stakeholder."

This means, he said, that "we want China to act in ways that help bolster the global system and promote peace and prosperity, and exhibit behavior commensurate with its status as a global power."

In that regard, he said, China has made positive contributions, such as taking part in international peacekeeping operations in Africa, where it has deployed more than 1,300 troops to Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and southern Sudan.

On the negative side, Swan said, the Chinese have not been very willing to encourage democracy, good governance and transparency for African leaders with whom they do business.

There is a perception, Swan said, that China is "willing to coddle authoritarian regimes," for example, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, "whose misrule and political repression has led to seven consecutive years of economic decline amid egregious human rights conditions."

The problem, Swan said, is that "this hands-off approach to human rights and democratic governance increasingly puts China at odds with the African consensus that these are important matters."

Despite the differences between the U.S. and the Chinese approaches in Africa, there is considerable room for cooperation," he said.  "For example, by finding complementarity in our aid programs, continuing support for peacekeeping operations and looking for opportunities to collaborate in the health sector."

The Chinese also have come closer to U.S. policy regarding controversial issues such as Darfur, Swan said. For example, China recently endorsed the United Nations' three-phase program for deploying a peacekeeping force in the province and have shown interest in helping "convince the Sudanese government to accept it."

The hope now, Swan told his audience, is that the Chinese "will keep pressing the Sudanese on this [Darfur] issue."