Jackson Mwalulu: Why China interest in Africa should be treated with care

CHINA IS RAMPAGING, AND the West is restive. In the last few years, Western media propaganda has focused on China’s role in the Darfur crisis, accusing Beijing of propping up the el-Bashir dictatorship which is waging ethnic cleansing in which over 200,000 people have died since 2003.

The world’s second biggest consumer of petroleum products, China has over the last decade invested heavily in Sudan’s petroleum industry.

The main beef by the West about China, however, goes beyond Sudan and its bloody oil. What worries the Tran-Atlantic family is China’s runaway internationalism. Chinese presence is palpable everywhere on the globe, thanks to the country’s growing economic might.

The focus of the West’s attention is, however, the developing world in general, and Africa in particular.

Americans are particularly burning the midnight oil to ensure china is tamed. Proxy assaults such as the CIA’s role in the Tibet crisis aside, the post-9/11 National Security Strategy (2002) aims, inter alia, “to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival”.

However, the worry about China becoming another USSR is a purely Trans-Atlantic problem. Following the November 2006 African leaders’ Beijing summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Europeans not to “leave the commitment to Africa to the People’s Republic of China,” emphasising the need to “take a stand in Africa.”

Should Africa fear or embrace China? For those who grew up in the Cold War era, the most memorable Afro-Chinese interaction was as partners in the struggle against Western colonialism and neo-colonialism. At the economic level, China’s most important landmark in this region was the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Line (Tazara), built in the 1970s.

The post-Cold War China has opened up its economy, leading to an unprecedented boom. But as they say, for every action, there must be a counter-action.

China’s economic boom and the concomitant global spread are rubbing up some interests the wrong way.

The Chinese factor in Sudan, for instance, is not confined to the Darfur question. It more importantly impinges on the greater North-South Sudan and the northern Uganda peace processes.

Here is why.

An independent South Sudan does not guarantee China uninterrupted flow of the black gold. Secondly, by sponsoring the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as a key strategy to keep the Sudanese National Resistance Movement on its toes, President el-Bashir would love to have Kony’s boys around for a little longer.

The effect is to undermine the spirit and letter of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), and to destabilise the entire Great Lakes Region.

CHINA’S HUGE APPETITE FOR Africa’s enormous natural wealth is also being felt in Zambia where, environmentally-insensitive copper mining activities by Chinese multinationals has become an emotive political issue.

In Mozambique, deforestation in the Zambezia region where thousands of locals have been licensed to supply timber to Chinese companies is causing havoc. In neighbouring Angola, similar environmental concerns have been aired about Chinese aggressive oil mining ventures.

In engaging Africa, China is dangling quite succulent carrots: It pledges to double assistance to the continent by the year 2009; cancel debts to the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPCs); build the African Union’s Conference Centre, and establish a multibillion-dollar China-Africa development fund to encourage Chinese companies to invest in Africa.

Chinese experimentation with economic internationalism is legendary, but it is has not been without controversies. In south East Asia, the Chinese are treated as exploitative, insular, “outsider” economic minorities, in the league of Indians in East Africa, Lebanese in West Africa, and whites in southern Africa.

Every cloud, however, has a silver lining. In Kenya, a Chinese company, China National Oil Corporation (CNOOC), is on the verge of discovering oil in the eastern part of the country. If the discovery happens, Kenya will be catapulted to the league of oil-rich nations in the region.

China is also interested in large-scale food crop farming in Kenya, an experiment it wants to replicate from Uganda, where hundreds of Chinese are growing corn on a 10,000-acre piece of land.

In all these ventures, the principle of China’s self-interest, like the desire to plough back home the wealth they make in Africa, is not missed.

Importantly, China’s increasing outward-looking tendency is fuelled by its rapid post-socialist industrialisation crusade, which is eating up agricultural land back home.

The bottom line here is that China seeks to cushion its victims of globalisation by exporting them to Africa, where they can create wealth for themselves and their motherland.

But at what cost? For Kenya, it would be politically naive to invite an outsider to exploit our land for agricultural purposes at a time when we are slaughtering one another in the name of a land crisis.

The West is not an angel, but China’s role in Africa should be treated with a pinch of salt.

Mr Mwalulu comments on political and social issues.

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