China, Africa forging closer ties


BEIJING -- An unprecedented summit with 48 African countries has given a dramatic boost to China's ambitions for superpower status, fuelling its drive to challenge the West for supremacy in the developing world.

The summit wrapped up yesterday with news of a further $1.9-billion (U.S.) in trade and investment deals between China and Africa, on top of the $10-billion in loans and assistance China offered on Saturday.

The two-day summit in Beijing was attended by 35 heads of state from Africa, along with senior officials from 13 other African countries. It was a vivid demonstration of China's expanding sphere of influence in the developing world, where it is beginning to dislodge the West from its traditional position of dominance.

"This summit was quite unprecedented," said Wenran Jiang, a political scientist at the University of Alberta who was in Beijing yesterday.

"No other power has the will or ability to pull this off. It really marks the emergence of China as a dominant power in a faraway continent that was previously the back yard of the European powers."

The numbers confirm his analysis, showing that China has become the biggest source of aid for Africa. This year alone, China has pledged more than $8-billion in loans to sub-Saharan Africa, far more than the annual amount from any other country or institution. By comparison, the United States gave loans of $3.5-billion to sub-Saharan Africa in 2004 (the latest figure available) and France lent $3-billion, while the World Bank is lending $2.3-billion this year.

Moreover, the Chinese aid is generally given without strings attached, which makes it much more popular than the conditional aid from Western countries or the World Bank.

China's trade with Africa will reach about $50-billion this year, a surge from the $11-billion in trade just five years ago. Beijing is aiming to boost that to $100-billion by 2020. China is already investing billions of dollars in African oil fields, railways, ports and other projects.

"This is likely the beginning of a sea change in foreign involvement in the region," said Charles Burton, a political scientist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and a former Canadian diplomat in Beijing.

"China is pulling out all the stops to honour African leaders and curry favour with African elites. I think the Chinese see the United States as a declining power in the world, and China hopes to fill the vacuum."

Africa has become crucial in feeding China's fast-growing appetite for oil. Africa now provides 38 million tonnes of crude oil annually, about one-third of China's oil imports.

For the African leaders, China has become extremely attractive as a source of revenue and as a model of development. Unlike the Western powers, China does not put any pressure on African countries to respect human rights or to reform their economies. It provides cash without conditions. And China provides a big market for African natural resources, while offering cheap factory-made products for African consumers.

Human-rights groups, however, are deeply concerned about the trend, noting that China is perpetuating the survival of authoritarian regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe. China now owns 40 per cent of Sudan's oil-production facilities, and it has blocked several attempts by the United Nations to punish Sudan over the conflict in that country's western Darfur region.