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CHINA: Oil, Global Influence Driving Hu Jintao’s Africa Trip

Moyiga Nduru

JOHANNESBURG, Jan 29 2007 (IPS) - China’s energy-hungry economy and global influence are driving President Hu Jintao’s 12-day tour of Africa which kicks off this week.

It is Hu’s second trip to Africa in less than a year. The visit, which starts Tuesday, will take him to Cameroon, Namibia, Mozambique, the Seychelles, Sudan, South Africa, Zambia and Liberia. He returns home Feb. 10.

“China is moving in a big way in Africa. It is a high priority for China in terms of oil, mineral resources, trade and investment of which infrastructure is a part,” Francis Kornegay of the Johannesburg-based Centre for Policy Studies told IPS in an interview.

“China’s growth needs a lot of natural resources. Oil is top of its agenda. And Sudan is high too. China is also sourcing oil from Angola, Gabon, Nigeria and Chad,” he said.

But Hu’s trip is raising concerns particularly among civil society and human rights activists who accuse Beijing of placing profits above people’s lives wherever it is doing business.

In an open letter to China’s president on Jan. 29, Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia Division of the New York-based Human Rights Watch urged China to use its influence to end the conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur and to use the revenue from the Sudanese oil for the benefit of the poor.

“(We) encourage the Government of Sudan to place a portion of its oil revenues in an internationally administered trust fund for the victims of atrocities. It is clear that the vast majority of Sudan’s oil revenues are not benefiting the millions of Sudanese citizens who require basic services and even international food aid to survive,” Adams wrote.

“In Darfur alone, at least 3.5 million people are partly or wholly dependent on international aid. At least two million people lost family members, homes and all their assets at the hands of government forces and their militias,” he said. “Supporting a trust fund will not jeopardise China’s energy interests or cause unemployment in Sudan and will demonstrate China’s support for the victims of the conflict.”

Kornegey agreed that China turns a blind eye on human rights abuses in Africa. “But those criticising China on this point are missing the larger picture. The focus should be peace and security. Human rights are a western concept. China’s main interest in regard to Africa has to be viewed as peace and security,” he said.

To fend off growing criticisms, Chinese officials say they are emulating the policy of Zheng He, the famous Chinese navigator, who travelled to more than 30 countries in Asia and Africa 600 years ago.

“Zheng He took to the places he visited tea, chinaware, silk and technology. He did not occupy an inch of foreign land, nor did he take a single slave. What he brought to the outside world was peace and civilisation. This fully reflects the good faith of the ancient Chinese people in strengthening exchanges with relevant countries and their people. This peace-loving culture has taken deep root in the minds and hearts of Chinese people of all generations,” Liu Guijin, Chinese ambassador to South Africa, told the African Business Leaders Forum in Johannesburg in October 2006.

“China is trying to reach out to the rest of the world. President Hu is China’s greatest ambassador. He has been to Latin America, Asia Pacific, Europe and the U.S. In contrast, Bush (the U.S. president) has been to Africa only once (in 2003),” Sanusha Naidu, researcher in Chinese studies at South Africa’s University of Stellenbosch, told IPS.

“President Hu Jintao’s visit demonstrates the soft power diplomacy of China. It’s not just the dominant countries of Africa like the Sudan and South Africa that he is visiting. It’s a mixed bag. Seychelles, for example, can be a useful port for China given its proximity to the other Indian Ocean Islands around it. The same goes for Mozambique, which could be a strategic port for China into landlocked countries like Zambia and Malawi,” she said.

“Meanwhile, in Africa, China is the biggest contractor of roads for Mozambique. It also purchases sea food like prawns, and cashew nuts,” Naidu said.

China’s cooperation with Africa began in 1956 when it threw its weight behind the continent’s liberation movements in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique.

“Since 1956, China has completed some 900 projects of economic and social development in Africa, provided scholarships for 18,000 students from 50 African countries to study in China. And it sent 16,000 medical personnel to 47 African countries who have treated more than 240 million patients. Up to now, there are over 3,000 Chinese forces participating in the UN peacekeeping in Africa,” the Chinese ambassador said in his paper ‘Economic and Trade Relations between China and Africa Anchored on Mutual Benefit and Win-Win Cooperation’ presented before Africa’s business leaders.

Trade between China and Africa is also growing. “In 2005, it hit 39.8 billion, with China’s import from Africa totalling 2.1 billion dollars, more than its export to Africa,” he said. There are some 800 Chinese-owned companies in Africa.

But Naidu has urged African countries to identify what they want to get from China. “Are African businesses investing and doing business in China?” she wondered.

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