New strings attached
China’s influence in Africa goes so deep that African leaders are starting to shape their own agendas after China’s. In February 2012, South African President Jacob Zuma gave his “state of the nation” speech in Cape Town, but he might as well have been in Beijing. “For the year 2012 and beyond,” he said, “we invite the nation to join government in a massive infrastructure development drive.” By October, Zuma was vowing $100 billion in Chinese-style infrastructure investment to help create jobs. In welcoming Xi Jinping, China’s new president, to South Africa last month for a BRICS conference, Zuma gushed, “We view China’s success as a source of hope and inspiration.” Apparently, he also views China as a model for his country’s development.
The infatuation is mutual. Xi Jinping recently made his first major foreign diplomacy trip, choosing to go to Africa (after a brief visit to Moscow), stopping in Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo as he made the rounds of one of China’s most important regions for investment. After all, China’s foreign direct investment in Africa stood at less than $100 million in 2003; today, it’s more than $12 billion. China is already responsible for more than a quarter of all foreign investment in Africa — and commerce is still growing at a rapid clip.
At the BRICS summit in South Africa, Xi explained that African leaders need not worry that China is the same kind of benefactor as the U.S. “China will continue to offer, as always, necessary assistance to Africa with no political strings attached,” he said. Of course, there may not be political strings attached, but there are plenty of economic strings, and China is keen to pull them.
It’s true that China doesn’t care what kind of government its investment partners have, or whether there’s systemic corruption, or if the balance of power between corporation and citizen is, well, balanced. But China cares very much what these countries can offer China and its emerging economy. For African countries, many of which are governed by authoritarian regimes, China might as well be an ATM.
Despite China’s friendly rhetoric, however, there are expectations of what it means to be a Chinese economic partner. And those expectations are leading some on the continent to wonder whether China is a new colonial power, conquering with its money instead of its military. It was one thing when Hillary Clinton called China’s exploits a “new colonialism in Africa” in 2011. But just last month the governor of Nigeria’s central bank, Lamido Sanusi, wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times that argued:
China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism. The British went to Africa and India to secure raw materials and markets. Africa is now willingly opening itself up to a new form of imperialism.
Not everyone shares this view. A few weeks ago, I met with Shamsuddeen Usman, the Nigerian minister for national planning, who told me the exact opposite. He said Nigeria loves the Chinese because China actually writes checks. So which is it? Is China a pillager or an enabler?
The answer is tangled in those economic strings. Beijing is interested in these deals not just because they’re profitable but because they provide the oil, gas, metals and minerals needed to fuel China’s growth engine — and by extension, help China’s leaders maintain their hold on power. In addition, China can send its citizens to work on some of these infrastructure projects and can import surplus food from African countries. As long as China can have all that, everything’s great. But if a country wants to employ its own people instead of Chinese, or wants to send its surplus elsewhere rather than China, or can get a better oil price from another country … China might be less pleased and start pulling on some of the strings.
What about the West, where governments offer deals with political preconditions? The United States is handicapped because government and the private sector aren’t as in sync as they are in China. Government and corporations aren’t always working toward the same goals. That means the United States is playing the long game — it gives aid to Sub-Saharan Africa in the hope that eventually the countries thee will become stable enough to allow U.S. multinational corporations to set up shop. The Chinese, meanwhile, wouldn’t bother to put money into a country if it didn’t generate immediate returns.
There are downsides to the Chinese approach. Look at Sudan, where China has invested billions in oil pipelines to transport crude from the southern fields to the northern ports — and on to China. But recently China discovered that, when investing, there actually are political strings attached — for China. After Sudan split into two countries in 2011, giving birth to South Sudan, war threatened to derail the country — and China’s supply of oil. After all, 75 percent of the countries’ oil production takes place in landlocked South Sudan, but all ports that could bring that oil to market are north of the border. China was forced to step in to try to mediate the conflict between the two countries. It was an interventionist diplomatic effort we aren’t used to seeing from China.
Why did China have to get involved in the first place? It was the only non-African power that had a stake in Sudan. It was an economic stake, but with political implications. Economy and politics are almost always tied together, even if not by string. As Beijing’s investments grow in Africa, it will leave it increasingly tied to political shocks across the continent.
This column is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.
PHOTO: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma (R) shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping after a media briefing at the presidential guest house in Pretoria March 26, 2013. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko