Home | News    Friday 25 November 2005

What are the politics behind China’s race to develop Sudan?

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By Rob Crilly

Nov 24, 2005 (KHARTOUM) — A solitary flag flutters from the highest point of Khartoum’s new road bridge. But rather than the red, green, white and black of Sudan, the city’s latest Nile crossing bears the red of China.

"The Chinese are here and we are very pleased," says Alsir Sabil, a taxi driver, as he speeds past the still empty carriageway. "It is all around us. It is good for business for all of us."

Khartoum is at the epicentre of the latest scramble for Africa, as companies from the Far East pour into the continent seeking out the oil, iron and minerals that will fuel China’s growing economy for years to come.

At the same time, its engineering firms are building dams, roads and bridges - from Sierra Leone in the north to Angola in the south.

Travel anywhere in the booming capital of Sudan and the dragon economy is never far away. Dozens of Chinese contractors huddle outside the aliens’ immigration office, minibuses covered in Cantonese script whizz through the busy streets, and the city’s limited gastronomic scene includes plenty of bustling Far Eastern restaurants.

Much of the growth is based on oil. From a standing start a decade ago, with an economy fractured by civil war and international alienation, Sudan now has the third-biggest oil industry in sub-Saharan Africa.

Five years ago, it became the African base for the Chinese oil industry. The China National Petroleum Corporation built its first refinery outside its home country there. A 900-mile pipeline stretches from the oil-rich south of the country to the Red Sea.

Shao Weijian, commercial secretary of the Chinese embassy in neighbouring Kenya, says the impetus is simple to understand.

"The Chinese government is encouraging companies to go outside the country to invest. China is the manufacturing centre of the world and becoming stronger and stronger - and if we want to survive then we must invest outside. That is our policy - to encourage companies to go and invest."

In the past, he adds, that meant the developed world. Today, it increasingly means the developing world - and Africa.

The modern scramble for Africa resembles the late 19th century when European nations carved up the continent as they searched for minerals and slaves.

Trade between Africa and China tripled between 2000 and 2004, according to the Chinese ministry of commerce, as the country tapped into the natural resources and foreign earnings needed to fuel its rapid economic rise.

Chinese government figures show state and private companies have pumped $100 million (84.8 million) into Zambia - mostly its copper industry - during the past four years. In Sierra Leone, Chinese firms are spending tens of millions of dollars to energise the country’s tourism industry, shattered by civil war.

At the start of the year, Angola signed a $2 billion deal with China, selling oil and future exploration rights. And Chinese engineering firms are providing most of the expertise behind a $1.2 billion dam on the fourth cataract of the Nile in Sudan. When complete, its hydropower plant will double the country’s electricity-generating capacity.

The investment is a welcome boost for Sudan, still struggling with US and European sanctions imposed after the country was identified as a haven for terrorists in the 1990s.

While other governments tend to set conditions on investment - asking awkward questions about corruption or environmental protection - the Chinese prefer not to get involved, much to the delight of leaders like Robert Mugabe.

The Zimbabwean president - reviled around much of the world for his appalling human rights record - could barely contain his delight earlier this year when he took delivery of three aircraft from a Chinese manufacturer, quickly announcing closer ties with the Far East.

The scramble has sent jitters through neoconservatives in Washington who fear Beijing is looking to gain a political hold on Africa. However, Drew Thompson, China analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies based in the US capital, says the concerns are misplaced - China is being driven by its insatiable domestic market rather than geopolitical ambitions.

But he points out that China is able to exploit markets in countries with questionable human rights records because its companies are not subjected to legal challenges by home-grown pressure groups, unlike in the West.

Nor are they worried about corporate image in the same way as western companies.

Mr Drew argues the key question is whether the US and Europe can work with China to develop responsible policies towards Africa.

"The trick is, is China going to encourage people like Mugabe and other questionable regimes to change their leadership style, to promote governance, to clamp down on corruption? Or will they be new-style colonialists?"

Jemera Rone, Sudan analyst at Human Rights Watch, believes the question has become a little clearer in the past year.

When Sudan’s actions in Darfur came before the UN Security Council earlier this year, she says, China could have vetoed proposals to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court.

It did not.

"The Chinese seem to be a little more aware of their image now," she says.

(Irish Times)

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