China Acknowledges Downside in Africa

The Associated Press
Thursday, February 8, 2007; 4:16 PM

PRETORIA, South Africa -- Chinese President Hu Jintao is in Africa bearing the usual gifts of money for soccer stadiums and interest-free loans. But he also has brought a new recognition of the downside of China's aggressive quest for the continent's resources.

These include tensions over mounting trade imbalances, the practices of some Chinese investors and the risks of doing business with rogue states.

Unmentioned, as Beijing adds luster to Africa's renewed status as a strategic ally, is the possibility of a dispute with the United States as the two vie for resources and influence on the continent. Another source of possible conflict is China's arms sales to countries accused of human rights violations.

Hu's eight-nation, 12-day tour has taken him to Cameroon, Liberia, Sudan, Zambia, Namibia and South Africa. On Thursday, he arrived in Mozambique and wraps up his tour Friday and Saturday in the Seychelles.

Hu was met by flag-waving crowds and standing ovations. But he also had to deal with pressure to influence Sudan's government about the bloody conflict in Darfur. And in Liberia, there were rumors that a legislator received a handout from Taiwan, China's rival.

Clothing manufacturers in Zambia complained cheap Chinese goods are destroying their business. South Africa's textile union says some 100,000 jobs have been lost as synthetic fabrics replace cotton prints in street markets across the continent, and last year threatened to boycott anyone selling Chinese products.

Fearing protests, Hu's delegation canceled a visit to Zambia's Copperbelt, where Beijing is setting up an economic cooperation zone expected to draw $800 million in mining investments.

While many Zambians welcome the Chinese presence, there has been a backlash fueled by workplace accidents, poor working conditions and low pay at Chinese-run copper mines. Fifty-one Zambian workers died in a 2005 mine explosion and dozens of protesters were fired on by Chinese security guards last year.

"They are not here to develop Zambia, they're here to develop China," said Zambian legislator Guy Scott.

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki has warned against allowing Chinese forays into Africa to become a neocolonialist adventure, with African raw materials exchanged for shoddy manufactured imports and little attention to developing an impoverished continent.

Hu was at pains to change that perception.

In a speech to South African university students, he emphasized "economic win-win cooperation." In Namibia, he counseled managers of Chinese companies on bearing social responsibility and promoting harmony with residents, China's state television reported. It appeared to be the first time Hu has addressed issues facing Chinese companies operating in Africa.

Most Chinese business here is conducted by state companies. Hundreds have invested in thousands of projects, including oil exploration and refining, mines, fishing, precious woods, telecommunications and major infrastructure, especially roads.

China says its trade with Africa soared to $55.5 billion last year, overtaking former colonizer Britain to become Africa's third-largest trading partner after the United States and France. China's biggest African trade partner is South Africa.

Hu promised Wednesday to increase imports of African products to balance the deficit, though it was hard to see how that would be feasible.

"He's got a proliferation of important folks on the continent raising questions around, `At what price is this expansive engagement (with China) going to be delivered?'" said J. Stephen Morrison, Africa program director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which published a report Thursday on Chinese-Africa relations and how they affect the United States.

Chinese officials "are beginning to recognize that they have some problems in Africa," he said.

Morrison said China's policy of noninterference, such as in Sudan's Darfur conflict, is untenable. The Sudanese government is accused of funding militias and allowing its military to brutalize civilians in a conflict that has killed some 200,000 people and left 2.5 million homeless since 2003.

Until recently, China resisted using its economic clout to influence Sudan's government. But Hu "took a big step," Morrison said, when he visited Sudan last week and urged its leader to allow the United Nations a bigger role in Darfur, where poorly equipped African peacekeepers have failed to defend civilians.

Hu probably was responding to pressures including threats from American human rights activists to damage Beijing's image as it prepares to host next year's Summer Olympics.

China opposes any sanctions against Sudan and would be sure to fight a new proposal for the United States to sanction companies that do business in Sudan. China buys two-thirds of Sudan's oil, sells it weapons and military aircraft and is its biggest investor.

World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz has accused Chinese banks of ignoring human rights and environmental concerns in Africa. He warned that the Chinese surge in lending could fuel corruption and debt burdens.

From Liberia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, China is increasingly involved in peacekeeping operations: In 2004 it contributed more than 1,500 troops to U.N. missions across the continent.

China has publicly supported the three African candidates _ South Africa, Egypt and, in particular, Nigeria _ for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Just as China is having to rethink its strategy in Africa, so should the United States, Morrison said in his report.

"China's ambitious, new high-profile role in Africa challenges the United States to think far more comprehensively and strategically," the report says. "A part of that challenge, for both the United States and China, will be trying to avoid the trap of a damaging and unnecessary strategic competition in Africa."

© 2007 The Associated Press