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Hilary Clinton’s statement made in Nairobi regarding China’s role on the continent

There has been a great deal of comment in Africa about Hilary Clinton’s statement made in Nairobi regarding China’s role on the continent. Although she didn’t make the accusation directly, Secretary Clinton intimated that China was acting irresponsibly, without leaving anything behind for Africans. She then stated that no-one wanted a new colonialism in Africa.

It strikes me that there are two competing ideas of supporting African governance. The US position is that Africa has been held back by poor governance and institutions, and that burdensome states have failed to provide the opportunity for small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to flourish. The answer as they see it is to withhold investment or aid which supports leaders who do not respect Western (not universal as Clinton suggested) norms of representative democracy, transparency, and private sector led development.

The corresponding Chinese position is that African countries have failed to develop due to the constrictive policy of the developed world, which has strangled the independence of African governments, and limited access to key markets with trade regulation and sanctions. Their response is to respect the sovereignty of African governments, whatever their nature, and to provide support as local government sees fit.

Both arguments carry weight, but in practical terms both of these ideological positions are overridden by energy and security policy. As Deborah Brautigam points out in her blog this week, the USA continues to deal with leaders such as Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, and two of the largest recipients of US aid have been Egypt and Ethiopia, neither of which could be said to be conforming to Western norms of representative democracy or transparency.

In China’s case despite having preached non-interference and non-intervention in the affairs of African countries, Beijing has increasingly become involved in international peace-keeping efforts in Sudan and the Gulf of Aden. As mentioned in my previous postBeijing have even pressed for an attack on coastal targets in Somalia. While both countries’ rhetoric centres on ideology, Washington and Beijing rarely (if ever) allow ideology to trump strategic interests.

Soon after Secretary Clinton criticised China’s African policy in Dar-es-Salaam, newly appointed State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland justified China’s decision to invite Omer al-Bashir to Beijing for talks next week. “China shares our interest in peace in Sudan,” Nuland said. “So it is our hope that, in welcoming Bashir, they are going to make the same points that the international community have been making to both sides, frankly”.

Nuland unsurprisingly referenced China’s ulterior motive, saying “it’s hard to have money and oil when there’s no peace”. That might equally have been a justification of US policy. Sudan is a large oil producer, and a potential security risk in the region. Going on Nuland said, “our position on Bashir is clear. China makes its own national decisions. We just hope that they use the opportunity of having him in town to make strong points to him about the future of his country and the importance of peace”.

However under ‘internationally accepted standards of good governance and transparency’ Amnesty International lambasted China’s decision to invite the Sudanese leader. “If China welcomes Omar Al-Bashir it will become a safe haven for alleged perpetrators of genocide”, said Catherine Baber, Deputy Asia Pacific Director at Amnesty International. The US has tacitly approved the visit despite the fact that it goes against the decision of the US supported International Criminal Court which calls for his extradition on arrival in China.

The US policy here is to create the illusion of disappointment and surprise, in what has actually looked most like a coordinated ‘good cop (China), bad cop (USA)’ policy for Sudan. The US agenda for criticising China is simple. To create a reputation for poor quality and irresponsibility in China’s engagement in Africa so as to improve African stake-holder’s opinion of the US relative to China. China meanwhile does the same chiding the west for disrespectful and hectoring policy so as to curry favour.

Nevertheless this week’s news on the China Africa relationship is unsupportive of Clinton’s claims. It was announced this week that China tops the list for development financiers in Kenya. Chinese funding in Kenya is going towards the construction of the Nairobi Eastern Bypass project (Sh2.2 billion), Thika Highway (Sh4 billion), power and distribution modernisation, drilling of Ol Karia geothermal plant (Sh3.2 billion) and to upgrading universities and technical training institutes (Sh2.4 billion). The largest share contributes towards an e-government platform (Sh3.9 billion). It seems churlish to accuse China of leaving nothing behind.

China’s advantage here is in its immense experience and capacity for providing housing and infrastructure. Multimillion person cities have sprung up in China seemingly overnight. The issue of providing city housing is common to both China and Africa. Therefore plans for a designer city in Angola seem best delivered by Chinese firms. It was announced this week that a $3.5-billion city, ‘Kilamba Kiaxi’ is to be built 20km from Luanda to ease overcrowding in the capital. The first phase, due for completion in December 2012, will provide housing for 120,000 people in 710 apartment buildings rising up to 13 stories. The development will include schools, shops and parks and will be built by an arm of Angola’s ubiquitous state oil firm, Sonangol, by Chinese contractor CITIC.

China’s advantage- and its chief area of criticism- is its ability to deliver skilled people cheaply. While often these people have been workers and foremen it was announced this week that in Nigeria Beijing plans to send 469 technicians to provide technical assistance to the 36 states in the execution of 109 projects over the next five years. This type of capacity building, if realised (many Chinese projects are announced without ever coming to fruition), is vital to developing local capacity.

The question of ‘why China is so heavily involved in Africa?’ is very often asked. The answer: for the same reasons as every other developed economy, resource security. The answer seems so obvious that it begs another question. Why is there so much questioning of China’s motives on the continent? An answer: because it suits the West to cast doubt over China’s value to African countries. While the Western attack plays out in the international media, the Chinese riposte takes place in countless meetings rooms when Chinese diplomats simply ask Africa politicians, ‘what do you need?’..

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