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A New Jade Empire?

A major world power forging local relations with the elite of underdeveloped nations,  all the while gaining political sway, resources to fuel it’s booming economy, and international prestige. Depending on who you ask, that could be the description of any number of countries, both historically and today. Increasingly however, that description is being applied to the People’s Republic of China. As expected,  China has vehemently denied such charges as  “a veiled swipe at Beijing’s efforts to forge closer ties with Africa”  – and the Chinese are correct.

China boasts proudly that it has funded the creation of schools and hospitals alongside all manner of infrastructure, all the while training 40,000 local workers and awarding 20,000 government scholarships. In 2011 they invested around 15 billion dollars in African aid and development projects, up 60% from 2009. To top it all off, Chinese-African trade relations exploded into a 166.3 billion dollar volume, up 83% from two years previous. They have hosted the fifth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) this past summer where they earned glowing praise from many African leaders, including the Rwandan Foreign Minister who called their partnership a win-win relationship.

China is also becoming heavily involved in African security concerns and interventions, devoting the largest number of U.N. Peacekeepers to African missions, and taking part in patrol exercises in the Gulf of Aden. All around, this is the policy Beijing throws back to silence it’s critics. General-Secretary Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations in fact praised the Chinese-African partnership last year as an example of South-South Cooperation and added that China has the capacity to help Africa reach it’s human and economic potential. Even with all of these effective and beneficial measures however, there is some cause for alarm.

In 2006, China was awarded a 3.5 billion dollar mining contract in Gabon. The contract afforded them a 25 year tax holiday, environmental regulation exemptions, significant control of the country’s infrastructure – as well as the obligatory exclusive mining rights to a billion tonnes of ore with 64% iron content The project was shortly thereafter interrupted by an investigation into those environmental exemptions that put funding on hold – and decreased a land grant of 5,000 square km to just 600. While the initial agreement is alarming, the fact that the project has come under scrutiny marks a significant divergence from colonialism and shows that oversight does exist.

Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga has also expressed concerns and promised to discuss trade areas that were not agreeable at FOCAC. He said that “we should by now be having a tractor manufacturing plant here in Kenya. There is no reason why we should be importing tractors from China year in year out” and “we should have a fertilizer manufacturing plant here instead of importing the product from China which causes delays and poor harvests.” Even were such measures to be taken by the Chinese, and despite their efforts to train local workers, Chinese firms and projects will generally import the required labour from China itself – ensuring that they continue to reap benefits in both Gabon, and in any such projects in Kenya. Perhaps expectedly, this population importation has also resulted in a growing ethnic hostility in some regions – with some Africans seeing a Western elite replaced by a Chinese work force.

Considering the charges of Chinese-African relations as an encroaching neo-colonialist empire, it would appear that such concerns are exaggerated. If a major cause for Western concern involved a mining deal subjected to a review and then reduced in scope, it is certainly so. Meanwhile, the gripe of African leaders appears to be disappointment that Chinese investment in infrastructure has not gone far enough, and that when it does advance, said Chinese investors employ Chinese migrant workers instead of locals. Even these complaints however, acknowledge that progress is being made in building up the infrastructure and capability of Chinese partners – just perhaps not in the most ideal way. Moreover, with 40,000 trained local workers already having gained their skills in cooperation with Chinese firms, this number will rise with the continued increase of Chinese investment in Africa.

A major world power is indeed forging local relations with the elite of underdeveloped nations, gaining political sway, resources to fuel it’s booming economy, and international prestige – but not in the way it’s critics have charged. Chinese policy in Africa is built on creating partners that can reciprocate a healthy trade and security relationship with Beijing, rather than creating vassal states that do as they’re told. If the West is still concerned with the threat of China turning her partners into puppets in the future, and with making Africa a more prosperous and peaceful continent – then it must stop competing with China for influence on the international scene. Instead, the West must engage with China and African states to combine Western Aid with Chinese Investment in a co-operative and respectful manner. With this new approach on these concepts, not only will the West be able to lay it’s fears to rest, but China will have forged ties in an industrializing continent and Africa may yet be able to plot it’s course on it’s own terms.

-Adam Templer

photo credit: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Steve Webel




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