May 27,2009

China's "Grand Strategy" for Africa

By Thomas Wilkins, Washington DC

Is China interested in Africa mainly because of its oil and minerals?  "No!" said experts in Washington last week.

Whereas Beijing has significant trade with Africa in raw materials, there are other "grand strategy" reasons for China’s increasing its sights on Africa, said Dr. Arthur Waldron, Trustee of The Jamestown Foundation and a chaired Professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

The "grand strategy" is different from the 1960s and 1970s when China wanted to build an ideological fit with developing nations to replicate Chinese-style communism and offer an alternative for Western colonialism. Today, the "grand strategy" combines political and economic considerations.

China is an autocratic success story and the leadership wants to preserve its autocracy. "The guiding principle of Chinese policy is to keep the Party in power. China is also seeking security by developing a constituency of friends, particularly among states in Africa and South Asia. She is also seeking to make her supply of raw materials independent of international markets, again by relying on countries like Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo where Western business is less active. " said Professor Waldron.

This China in Africa conference was sponsored by the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank which focuses on Chechnya, China, North Korea and Terrorism. Officially speaking, it describes itself as "without political bias" and research and analysis oriented. However, Political Research Associates at listed this group in its radar "tracking militarists?efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy."

"China hopes that African people can favorably relate to China. China’s professed respect for sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs is appealing to many African leaders, "said Drew Thompson, Director of China Studies at the Nixon Center. 

The China-Taiwan relationship was described as in a state of war, but the two sides "are working on a declaration of peace, " said Victor Zhikai Gao, Director of the China National Association of International Studies in Beijing. As the keynote speaker he pointed out that the African continent has 53 nations, of which only 4 have relations with Taiwan. The rest recognize Beijing. "Each nation has one vote at the United Nations" and China’s seat in the Security Council of the United Nations underscores her need to court the African nations.

While the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) lost its bid to acquire the American oil company, Unocal, CNOOC "is now working deals all over," said the politically savvy Gao, once an English interpreter for the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and a vice president of CNOOC.

Because oil is fungible, meaning oil stored in Africa can be swapped for oil stored in Asia, and because the US dollar presents problems for China, China’s strategy going forward will be heavily influenced by monetary and distance considerations. "Many Chinese people increasingly fear the rapid erosion of the American dollar. We still call the dollar American gold. But the United States should not assume that this will never change." Gao pointed out this conclusion in his recently published Op-Ed essay "China’s Heart of Gold" in the New York Times.

Gao argued strongly that "I don’t think China can export its model to Africa because the model was developed for the Chinese people, not for the African people." He was referring to China’s one party rule which controls enormous resources.

China’s grand strategy for Africa is a combination of political and economic motivations, but as Tanzania’s first President, Jules Nyerere said of his China-similar collectivization of agricultural "I failed. Let’s admit it."

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