China’s development projects in Africa reach from Morocco to South Africa. From soccer stadiums to TV stations and oil rigs …

Students take cultural courses at the University of Nairobi's Confucius Institute (photo: gezidiy.blog.sohu.com)

Students take cultural courses at the University of Nairobi's Confucius Institute (photo: gezidiy.blog.sohu.com)

Africa China bilateral trade, "distinct patterns of trade and exchange between Beijing and African nations have fostered a relationship focused on the future"

Africa China bilateral trade, "distinct patterns of trade and exchange between Beijing and African nations have fostered a relationship focused on the future"

In March 2009 Billy Noiman wrote The Africa Plan. The article contains some excellent graphs and charts, one of which is pictured above. It also contains an interactive map of China’s activities in relation to areas in which there has been conflict. The map is well worth a look. The entire article provides a concise overview of China’s presence in Africa.

From television broadcasts to cultural projects, China’s presence in Africa has been rapidly increasing.

“They are putting in Confucius institutes, where the Chinese are paying for the study of Mandarin, the study of Chinese culture and history,” Powell said. “Just as the French have their programs, the British have the British Council, the U.S. has American libraries, the Chinese are putting in their culture and educational outreach in a very significant way.”

While China is often portrayed as an oil-thirsty giant caring more about pipelines than people, the country’s involvement in Africa is not so cut and dry.

“Contrary to what many assume, China’s large oil companies are not dominant players in Africa’s energy industry. With the important exception of Sudan, where the China National Petroleum Company (CNPC) is the major operator, Chinese oil companies are relatively minor players in Africa,”

Nevertheless, trade is growing exponentially. Total trade between China and Africa reached US$107 billion in 2008, a 45% jump since the previous year. There are now over 800 different Chinese enterprises doing business in Africa. The Southern African reported in January 2009 that Angola recently became China’s largest African trader, with total volume exceeding US$25 billion. With China’s continued drive for natural resources and Africa’s need for infrastructure development, the relationship appears to be a match made in economic heaven.

Carine Kiala, a Senior Analyst for the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosh University in South Africa, said that in general, “Certain African governments are receiving credit lines and services in exchange for their natural commodities. How this benefits the general population is subject to interpretation.”

The Chinese have become creative in working with African states whose heavy indebtedness makes it difficult for them to get construction loans. China Exim Bank permits such nations to use natural resources to pay for infrastructural development.

Kiala said that the infrastructure projects undertaken jointly by China and the local governments are having a highly visible impact on African societies.

“Most certainly, the infrastructure being put in place will solidify internal and regional linkages, thus facilitating trade and empowering the masses,” Kiala said. “Although job-creation is a direct benefit, African countries need sustainable employment and skills development.” A lack of capacity building – the development of the domestic population’s capabilities as a work force – has been one charge against China’s “resources for infrastructure” trade strategy.

This last is one of the angry criticisms I hear most often against the Chinese presence in a variety of countries.

Besides cultural exchanges and industrial development, China has also played an active role in providing aid for poverty-stricken African countries. In late 2006, President Hu Jintao pledged to provide African countries with US$5 billion in aid including soft loans and credits over the next few years. With this pledge China hoped to bolster trade between the two regions. Others, however, see more harm than good in China’s aid packages. In early 2007, the British government warned Beijing that their assistance agreements and inexpensive loans threaten to drive countries back into debt after just recently beginning to realize the benefits of other debt relief programs.

In discussions with African governments, Chinese officials emphasize the country’s long-term commitment to the relationship. Given the region’s colonial past, several African nations see this as a refreshing change. Furthermore, China’s “hands-off” approach in political affairs is a business advantage. Unlike its Western competitors, the Chinese government has chosen to keep political matters completely separate from business engagements.

Some people worry about it in terms of the Chinese only wanting oil and raw materials, which is true. But they see this as a very long-term commitment.”