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Al-Ahram - November 17, 2009 by Gamal Nkrumah China is not only an enormously big country, it is also an emblematic one. The Forum on China's Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has become a ground-breaking hallmark of Sino-African relations. "Whatever changes may take place in the world, our policy of supporting Africa's economic and social development will not change," Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao assured African delegates at the FOCAC 2009 convened in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, Sinai. The Chinese premier confirmed what most African policy-makers believe: Chinese investment in Africa does not provide more silk stockings for African queens but has been one of the most benign developments in postcolonial Africa, progressively raising the standards of life of the African masses. China's critics will have none of this. There are some Africans, and many Westerners, who dismiss Chinese economic interests in Africa as just as neocolonial as any of the imperialist powers of yesteryear. So does a country's level of development determine the level of Chinese trade? The Chinese entrepreneur does not overlook the precariousness of doing business in Africa. However, the Chinese know far too much about the history of doing business in Africa to assume the accolade of cheerleader. The Chinese have long traded with Africa. As early as the second century BC, China's Han Dynasty dispatched emissaries to African potentates and established trade relations with a number of African kingdoms. Images of Africans appeared not infrequently on the artworks of the Tang Dynasty, too. The Song Dynasty had a special relationship with the Kingdom of Zimbabwe and a brisk trade with the Swahili city- states along East Africa's Indian Ocean coastline. The Yuan Dynasty cemented these earlier ties between Africa and China. And, the Chinese explorer and geographer Zhu Xi produced his now fabled map of Africa -- one of the earliest of such detailed historically recorded maps. Meanwhile, it was during the Ming Dynasty that the greatest flowering of commercial exchanges between China and Africa occurred. The Chinese have long been devotees of doing business in Africa in the face of cutthroat Western competition. What inferences and conclusions one draws about the future of African-Chinese economic relations depend on whether one believes that the Chinese method of conducting business in Africa is qualitatively different and superior to that of Westerners. The African leaders were tripping over their words at Sharm El-Sheikh. China is a developing country, but its pace of development is at once impressive and inspiring. China has fewer than three cars for every 100 people -- America, on the other hand, has one car for every person of driving age. China is catching up fast with the West. And, it was only a generation ago that the vast majority of Chinese people suffered from the savagism of abject poverty. China understands the predicament of Africans. Some 3,000 children die each day in Africa of malaria. China understands that protectionist policies are bad politics, worse economics and the worst diplomacy that could hurt Africa. Bilateral trade agreements between China and African nations abound. China has provided $10 billion in concessional loans to African nations, far more appealing to African leaders than the commercial loans of Western donors. And, Chinese trade and development aid is not restricted to the resource-rich countries of the continent. Ethiopia exports $132 million worth of goods to China. Chinese exports to Ethiopia, on the other hand, exceed $432. Still, the most important trading partners of China in Africa are the resource-rich nations. China imports copper from Zambia, iron ore and oil from Gabon, and oil from Angola, Nigeria and Sudan. Angola, Beijing's biggest trading partner in Africa with a $25.5 billion trade-turnover per year, had $10 billion of its debt written off by China -- an astute move on China's part in terms of strengthening its strategic position on the continent. China is pandering to an Africa pregnant with promise, one that supply it with much needed raw materials. China has invested heavily in infrastructural development in Africa, though Beijing is still fighting doughtily for credibility in Africa. There are many in the West who accuse the Chinese of dealing specifically with African governments to the detriment of African civil society organisations. However, they disremember that China is a one-party state with a Communist political system -- no multi-party politics in the People's Republic. The Chinese, nevertheless, are prepared to play ball with African governments of whatever political shade. That view seems naïve, or else it is exacting, callous and calculated. Libyan leader Mouamar Gaddafi warned China against following in the West's footsteps. "Western powers and companies sucking Africa," he said. There are more profound arguments against a repeat of the neocolonial experience in Africa. What ought to be an emergency arrangement might turn into a permanent one. Chinese leaders insist that China is not poised to take over the role of Western neocolonial powers. The challenge for China to desist from following the same path. Africans are fond of consensus. On the whole, the Chinese role in Africa is widely regarded as benevolent. Any schemes the Chinese may have revolve around trade and development, with no pretense to shaping African political life to meet some neocolonial dependency agenda. This frustrates Western plans for shaping African political life according to the Western model of electoral democracy controlled by private business. China's most important trading partners in Africa are states that don't follow this model, and are consistently ostracised as pariah states by Western powers. Sudan, for instance, is the largest recipient of Chinese investments in Africa with more than $300 million in Chinese investments in various sectors of the Sudanese economy. Zimbabwe and Guinea are two other African pariah states staunchly supported economically by China. Sudan is followed by Algeria, South Africa and Zambia with over $100 million in Chinese investments each. Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya are also important trading partners and have over $50 million in Chinese investments each. Sinope, China's state-owned oil company, has extensive investments in Africa in a desperate bid by the Chinese to secure alternative sources of hydrocarbons and other energy sources other than the traditional Middle Eastern oil reserves. Sinope owns 40 per cent of Sudan's Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company and Beijing is Khartoum's biggest supplier of military aircraft and weapons. The Chinese are also investing heavily in Africa's mineral-extracting sector, but not exclusively. China's detractors argue that the Chinese strategy is profoundly mistaken and dangerously complacent, and especially so in the long-run. Last Ramadan, rioting broke out against Chinese entrepreneurs in Algeria -- a warning sign that Africans are not prepared to tolerate Chinese insensitivity to local customs and cultural specificities. The Chinese are also accused of living and working in ghettoes that are entirely disassociated from the local milieu. Homegrown Chinese technology and its famously cheap consumer goods are proudly paraded throughout Africa, some would say to the detriment of local industry. But this is clearly a transitional phase in relations. A debate is needed on the future direction of African-Chinese relations. That much was clear in Sharm El-Sheikh. In Africa, China is playing a long game. The dissatisfaction with democracy in much of Africa owes a great deal to the deep-rooted socio- economic inequalities in African countries and a conviction that governments in the continent by and large favour the interests of the privileged few. Deng Xiaoping set China on the road of sweeping economic reforms in 1978. Africa at that time was a continent embroiled in civil wars and labouring under a host of military dictatorships. Today Africa is a largely politically stable continent -- with viable multi-party democracies -- and more importantly as far as the Chinese are concerned, with immense economic potential still waiting to be tapped. And, China, the world's second biggest economy, manages to sustain robust economic growth in the midst of the global economic meltdown. Export growth has held up surprisingly well. The gloom and doom in Africa may be overdone. Cynics have dismissed the continent as a hopeless basket case. African economies, too, look much healthier than they were a decade ago. Indeed, one bright light amid the darkness is that several African economies are exhibiting two-digit growth rates -- China's favourites Angola and Sudan. Moreover, Africa is mesmerised by China's Dragonomics. However, the odds in favour of an imminent African renaissance look long. Why is this happening? China's is an emerging economy skewed towards exports. After decades of double digit economic growth rates, the Chinese economy is slowing down. Despite slower economic growth rates in emerging markets such as China, other emerging economies like India and Brazil are demonstrating an ever-increasing and all-absorbing interest in Africa. The next phase in Chinese-African relations must be preparing the ground for closer collaboration. This entails less reliance on the US dollar, perhaps more bilateral intercontinental relations, at the same time encouraging African unity. Even contemplating refashioning China's one-party capitalism-with-a-communist-face according to African reality is not such a farfetched notion. Sinosceptics, mainly envious and rancorous Westerners fast losing ground in Africa, take an alternative view tinged with their own sense of smugness. Yet if they are honest, Sinosceptics must acknowledge the positive role of China in Africa. For those fond of gloating, Western efforts to discredit China in Africa have been largely futile. Yet such are the political and economic changes being wrought by an ascendant China that soon it will overtake Africa's former colonial masters as the continent's main trading partner. The transition to a new reality where China calls the shots is well under way. This has allowed China to get off to an impressive start in Africa. In economic terms, America is the ideal bad cop -- as far as Africa is concerned -- to China's good cop. African nations knocking on the doors of rich donor nations invariably seem likely to get shorter shrift in Washington. African countries still hope to draw on the financial clout and technical expertise of Western powers, but their reliance in China is bound to increase in the years ahead. That is a reasonable bet.

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