Ever since the Berlin conference in 1883 in what Leopold II, the king of Belgium, had dubbed “the sharing of Africa’s cake”, Western countries tend to have assumed exclusive rights over the countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Centuries of struggle for political and economic freedom to free themselves from colonial rule, remove apartheid and win their independence did not change this assumption as these countries were held hostages by the West through a combination of comprehensive and exploitative trade deals, western market access restrictions, denial of international markets borrowing, aid addiction, restrictive domestic investment, crippling debts, political meddling and military intervention. However, this frozen balance of power is being challenged, since China has now set its sights on Africa. China has developed a comprehensive and coordinated strategy for its engagement in sub-Saharan Africa. Beijing’s approach to doing business with Africa is based on an agenda articulated around the keys areas of politics, diplomacy, investment, trade deals, energy, aid package, debt forgiveness, military assistance, health, education and tourism.

With regard to politics, alongside a stated dedication to the principle of no interference in each other’s internal affairs, China is also tapping into the historical experiences it shared with Africa as both have long sympathised with and supported each other in their struggle for national liberation. Furthermore, the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (CACF) was founded in 2000 to promote stronger trade and investment relations between China and African countries both in the public and private sectors. The CACF has produced two ministerial meetings and four meetings of senior officials with the view to increasing trade and investment. At the last CACF meetings in August 2005 China proposition to upgrade the meeting in 2006 at the level of heads of states was welcomed by the participants from 46 African countries and observers from six African regional organisations.

On the diplomatic front, since 2004, President Hu Jintao, Vice President Zeng Quinghong and the National People’s congress Chairman Wu Bangguo have visited many African countries, including Nigeria, South Africa, Gabon, Senegal, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia. This flurry of activity had three objectives: consolidating security of energy and mineral supplies, curtailing Taiwan’s diplomatic ties in Africa, which harbour six of the 26 countries that have full diplomatic representations in Taipei, and increasing China’s burgeoning influence around the globe.

With regard to investment, China has invested billions of dollars in sectors such as oil production, mining, transportation, electricity production and transmission, telecommunications and other infrastructure. For instance, Chinese representatives disbursed 2.27 billions dollars to acquire 45% stake of one of Nigeria’s offshore oilfields and promised to invest an additional 2.25 billions dollars in field development. Angola, which currently exports 25% of its oil production to China, was granted a 2 billion dollars loan in exchange for a contract to supply Beijing with 10 000 barrels of oil per day. The loan agreement stipulated that the loan coupled with an aid package will be reinvested to build schools, roads, hospitals, bridges, offices, a fiber-optic network, a training programme for telecommunications workers and a 1 300 km railways. The Tanzania railway was equally funded by China. Sudan, which now supplies 7% of China’s total oil imports, has benefited from the largest Chinese investments. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) holds 40% shares in the Greater Nile Petroleum Company and has invested 3 billions dollars in refinery and pipeline construction in Sudan. China’s foreign direct investment in Africa represented 900 million dollars of the continent’s 15 billion total in 2004.

China also sees the travel and tourism industry as having the potential for tremendous opportunities for generating revenues, creating jobs and alleviating poverty. Learning from each other, China and Africa will draw upon each other’s experience in developing their respective travel and tourism industries by encouraging investments in education, culture and capacity development. Such collaboration is already paying dividends with China’s increased involvement in Africa’s transportation industry: building roads, railways, seaports and airports.

On the other hand, Sino-African trade grew by 700% during the 1990s. From 2000 to 2003, trade between China and Africa doubled to 18.5 billion dollars, and then jumped to 32.17 billion in the first 10 months of 2005. It is greatly due to the burgeoning Chine’s activities that Africa registered 5.2% economic growth in 2005, it highest level ever.

In addition to investment and trade, China cancelled 10 billion dollars in bilateral debts from African countries. Since the 1960s, over 15, 000 Chinese doctors have worked in 47 African states treating nearly 180 million patients. China also hosts thousand of African workers and students in Chinese universities and training centres. In 2004, China contributed 1,500 peacekeepers to UN missions across Africa, including Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Four thousands Chinese People Liberation Army (PLA) troops have been deployed to southern Sudan to guard an oil pipeline. Furthermore, Beijing sends military trainers to train their African counterparts. Recently, China reaffirmed its intention to strengthen military collaboration with Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria and Sudan.

But there is a controversial aspect to Chinese’s frantic activities in sub-Saharan Africa. This is related to weapons sales to Africa. African countries are regular buyers of Chinese weapons and military equipment. In such an unstable region as Africa, already saturated with weaponry whose deadly use against civilians across the continent is at the centre of Chinese troops participating in peacekeeping missions in the continent, pouring more guns in this volatile situation cannot be welcome. Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong reply to such a concern that: “business is business and China separates business from politics” sounds rather cynical.

So, if there is no doubt that China’s breaking into the African scene is good for the continent because it brings in a new actor which is willing to invest and gives to the Africans an opportunity to chart another path to social and economic development other than the unfettered capitalism forced upon them by the western countries, including Japan, there are nonetheless some questions marks to be raised. The fist of them is related to the democracy deficits and the poor human rights records that beset both Africa and China. Economic growth without social justice is just another form of denying to the majority of the people their rights to decent living conditions for the benefit of a tiny rich minority.

There is also a tradition of bribery enshrined in the way China does business. That, combined with the rampant corruption that plagues Africa can bring an explosive chemistry, highly damaging to the anti corruption campaign underway in the region. What the Africans ought to emulate from the Chinese is their uncompromising stand over China’s unity, their fierce nationalism and their entrepreneurial spirit. It is therefore of paramount importance that the African put the building of a pan-African identity and their unity at the top of their agenda for progress. However important the amount of trade with China is, the bedrock of lasting peace and prosperity in the region remains a steady increase in intra-trade among the countries of the region and the rule of democracy as it suits us and not as the West imposed as conditionality to its support to Africa.

Another area of concern is the risk of the renewal of some kind of cold war in the region whose main protagonists would be France, the United States, the UK and China. The fact that China, within a decade, has overhauled the balance of power in the region, relegating the US and England to third and fourth place and challenging France for the first place as main economic and commercial partners of Africa did not go down well with these competitors. France ordered to all its outlets in Africa to file a report on China’s activities in the region. British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, came up with its “Commission for Africa”, which his peers failed to endorse in spite of the fact that Blair’s initiative did not really distance itself from free market liberalism – it was its embodiment, especially with its NEPAD-induced beatification of the private sector. France, the dominant architect of European policy in Africa, was opposed to Blair’s willingness to phase out European agricultural subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

As for the US, policy towards Africa can be summed up as: “Do as we say and not as we do”, sticking to its aid package tied to conditionality related to economic liberalisation, deregulation of capital movements, suppression of subsidies, liquidation of public assets, budget austerity, good governance, eradication of corruption and democracy. In the era of Abou Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, rendition flights, Worldcom, Emron, murky party political financing, lavish subsidies to US farmers and the failure of the Bush administration to put its finance in order at the expense of the rest of the world, this type of lecturing seems more and more Kafkaesque as the days go by. Besides, this liberal medicine distilled to sub-Saharan Africa for decades under the guidance of the Bretton Woods institutions has proved its limits as the poor state of the Africans testifies.

Oil represents a lifesaver for all industrialised countries which, until the terrorist attacks of 9/11 on America’s soil, had taken for granted a free access to steady oil supply with, in addition, the latitude to be able to control its trading price. Since then, the Middle East has become a powder keg, Latin America oil and gas producers such as Venezuela and Bolivia are slipping away from the US with the Bush administration and its cortege of neo-cons so fixated on the Middle East to be able to do anything about it and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is using its gas and oil as an economic weapon and a political tool to recapture its lost great power status. Consequently, Africa is the only soft target left for mineral resources predators to battle it out. But, the last thing Africa wants is to be the battleground in an economic and political war, which can even, given that oil represents, virtually, a question of life and death for these economies, escalate to military confrontation between the belligerents, conveniently in a region far from their own shores in which they have all of them, military presence. Africa knows from past experience that countries have no friends but only interests. The Darfur conflict is a perfect illustration of that fear. In spite of its declared faith in non interference, China, because of its extending interests in the Sudanese oil, keeps threatening to veto any resolution of the UN Security Council with regard to sanctions against the Arab ruling class of the Sudanese government whose troops and government-aligned militias are perpetrating genocide against Sudan’s black citizens, using Chinese-made helicopter gunship, based at airstrips maintained by Chinese oil companies. It happens that China and Africa’s interests converge presently and a wind of change is blowing in Africa. However, only time will tell if it will be a warm or a chilly airstreams. Still, it is a huge paradox for both the West and China that it is the forces of capitalism that have permitted this development. In a way both the West and China are trapped in them whether through a multi party or a one-party system – a testimony to the power, the adaptability and the monstrosity of free market forces!