Move Over, White Man: China in Africa and More

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,, at 3/17/2008 12:01:00 AM
The current issue of the Economist has a gaggle of articles about China's global quest for raw materials. All the articles in the survey are worth reading and I list them below. After that is a brief excerpt from the first article. In it, the Economist describes China's successful efforts to win over LDCs that have become wary of the West--colonial history and all that. China's selling point has been that it offers few strings attached in its economic relations as opposed to the litany of Washington Consensus-style demands of Western donors and firms. In other words, "it's a South-South thing." Although it may seem otherwise given the massive coverage of China's involvement in Africa, note that the EU is still by far the largest trading partner of the region. It will be interesting to see if it's just another case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Some non-governmental organisations worry that Chinese firms will ignore basic legal, environmental and labour standards in their rush to secure resources, leaving a trail of corruption, pollution and exploitation in their wake. Western companies fret that the Chinese state-owned firms with which they suddenly find themselves competing have an agenda beyond commercial gain. The Chinese government, they say, is willing to pay over the odds for mining or drilling rights to secure access to physical resources. It also intervenes unfairly on its companies' behalf, they claim, by offering big aid packages to countries that welcome Chinese investment. All this, it is feared, will dent the profits of big oil and mining firms, stoke inflation and imperil the West's access to resources that it needs just as much as China does.

Diplomats and pundits, for their part, fear that the West is “losing” Africa and other resource-rich regions. China's sudden prominence, according to this view, will reduce the clout of America, Europe and other rich democracies in the developing world. China will befriend ostracised regimes and encourage them to defy international norms. Corruption, economic mismanagement, repression and instability will proliferate. If this baleful influence spreads too widely, say the critics, the “Washington consensus” of economic liberalism and democracy will find itself in competition with a “Beijing consensus” of state-led development and despotism.

Such fears are not entirely groundless if the recent conduct of some of Congo's neighbours is anything to go by. Angola, to the south, has been receiving so much aid and investment from China that in 2006 it decided it had no need of the International Monetary Fund's billions and all the tiresome requirements for transparency and sound economic management that come with them. Sudan, to the north, has shrugged off Western threats and sanctions over the continuing atrocities in Darfur, thanks in large part to China's readiness to invest in Sudanese oilfields and buy their output. Farther afield, China's eagerness to do business in Myanmar, and its consequent reluctance to chide the tyrannical generals that run the place, helped to prevent a forceful international response to the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations there last year.