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Asia

The dragon chameleon: China's changing strategy in Africa

China invests massively in Africa. Some see that as positive and others criticize it, fearing human rights are at stake. Meanwhile it's a balancing act between China and other nations involved with Africa, such as India.

Chinese workers building a wall at a housing project funded by the Algerian government and built by a state-owned Chinese firm near Algiers, Algeria.

China is investing massively in Africa's infrastructre

Since 1955, China has claimed to follow a foreign policy of non-intervention, preferring to not get involved with foreign politics, but instead to merely concentrate on economic interests. But with its relatively recent extensive economic expansion, China has broadened its horizons and gone further than it would have dreamed in the 50s.

Marina Peter of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum says China is now one of the most active investors in Africa. She adds many Africans prefer doing business with the Chinese because of their no-strings-attached approach. "China has contact with just about every country. On a world-wide scale, it is the one country taking the lead in investment, especially on the African continent. China is active in about every African country, making investments and building infrastructure."

Scarred by invasive colonialism, ethnic conflicts and civil wars, the African continent as a whole still struggles with great poverty, famine, corruption and structural problems. Since China ventured out into Africa at the turn of the century, it has experienced a number of security issues inherent to setting up shop in areas of unrest.

An unidentified Chinese man watches as Nigerian labourers prepares the ground for a Chinese company to lay telecom cables in Lagos, Nigeria, 2006.

China's growth has sparked a global race with the West for markets and industrial resources in Africa

Large security problems

Despite heavy investment in areas of infrastructure and construction, Chinese companies have repeatedly fallen victim to rebels, like in 2004, when a number of Chinese workers were abducted in Sudan and between 2006-2007, when attacks in Nigeria, Zambia and Ethiopia, to name just a few, took the life of a number of Chinese citizens.

Jonathan Holslag, of the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies believes China has had to change its non-interference strategy for Africa to adapt to the violent and instable situation in many African countries.

In his paper, "China’s Response to Political Instability in Africa," Holslag looks at China’s involvement in five African countries (Central African Republic, Mauritanian, Guinea, Madagascar and Niger) that experienced military coups between 2003 and 2010. He comes to the conclusion that China was willing to cooperate with whoever came to power, adopting more a strategy of "adaptation" to protect its economic interests.

Challenging old strategies

China is building a new airport, 60,000 new homes, two luxury hotels and the longest continuous highway in Africa in Algeria

In Algeria, China is building a new airport, 60,000 new homes, two luxury hotels and the longest continuous highway in Africa

Holslag believes China is challenging its traditional policy of non-interference, as it is more likely to become exposed to security threats the further it ventures into the African continent. He says, "Now of course, insecurity is challenging the primacy of non-interference. I think the Chinese government still considers that it cannot backtrack instantly but that it should be a little more flexible in exerting pressure on local governments to look after Chinese security interests. And this is what Beijing has been developing a bit more rapidly over the last few years. It has provided more support - diplomatic support, but also military support- to a lot of African countries."

What many rights organizations criticize is that doing business with whoever is in power, be that a dictator or military ruler, can and often does undermine attempts to protect universal human rights. But Holslag says many Chinese officials doubt that western powers, such as the US, really place ethics above economic interests.

"For the Chinese, they believe that the liberalist policies of the West are simply not effective. The first argument to start with is that a lot of Chinese spectators know very well that often the west handles in terms of double standards and that the turn a blind eye to human rights violations and repression whenever it has important economic interests in those countries."

A Chinese construction worker supervise the building of a road, Thursday, April 26, 2007 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Security issues are no deterrent for Chinese investors

Competing for influence

Holslag points out that China’s endeavours in Africa are characterized by trying to avoid conflict with other foreign powers there, such as the US and India. If threatened, India, for example, could choose to create problems with Chinese naval ports in the Indian Ocean. Dr. Lawrence Sáez of University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies says though India is a newcomer compared to China, in many parts of Africa, India now seems to have an advantage. "The type of engagement that the Chinese have had in Africa has been based on quasi-neo-colonialist situations and so what India is doing is saying, well, we are different from china, we are likely to engage local populations in our plans to operate from there."

With both China and India aiming to expand their sphere of influence in Africa, Holslag says the Chinese approach involves helping to set up a sturdy infrastructure and economic development. This way, China hopes to help settle socio-economic instability, and thus pave the way for peace and prosperity.

Author: Sarah Berning
Editor: Adrienne Woltersdorf

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