A recent deal between China and Guinea Conakry has once again drawn attention to Beijing’s foreign policy in Africa. Here I want to start to put Chinese-Guinean relations into a continent-wide, as well as regional, context.
All over the continent of Africa, Beijing’s hand is visible in diverse economic projects, many of which concern energy resources. To take a few recent examples, China is constructing a pipeline in Chad and won major engineering contracts in Sudan this month. China’s trade with Africa now matches or potentially surpasses US-African trade. At the end of the summer, Reuters’ Africa blog proclaimed, “China Shunts US into Second Place in Scramble for Africa.”
With economic influence comes political effects, negative and positive. One negative encounter was a dispute – which became ugly and public – between Namibia and China over the terms of a low-interest loan. But on the positive side, Rwandan President Paul Kagame recently sang China’s praises, saying “The Chinese bring what Africa needs: investment and money for governments and companies.”
With this background in mind, I’d like to zoom in to the regional level, and talk about China’s activities in West Africa, an issue which the question of China’s involvement in Guinea has brought to the fore.
First of all, energy interests are at stake in West Africa just as they are elsewhere. This is true not just in oil giant Nigeria, but also in Ghana, where China National Offshore Oil Corporation may soon battle Exxon (free registration may be required) for a bid on a “massive offshore field.” Other petroleum-related projects in the region include the Chinese-financed and -built Port of Friendship in Mauritania.
As China’s role in the region expands, it is conducting cultural outreach as well as financial investment. In Liberia, where “mineral firm China Union became the largest investor [in the country] when it signed a $2.6bn deal to go into iron-ore mining earlier this year,” the Chinese embassy has begun offering free Chinese classes five days a week.
China has seen backlash in West Africa just like in other parts of the continent; this summer Nigerian politicians, angered by reports of abuse against Nigerians held in Chinese jails, moved to crack down on Chinese citizens illegally present in Nigeria. And MEND has threatened Chinese oil firms if they do business with the Nigerian government before peace comes to the Niger Delta.
On the whole, however, China seems to feel confident in its political position in the region. The Chinese ambassador to Senegal recently and boldly stated, “We can say that China has done more for Senegal in four years than what the Western countries have for her in 10 or 20 years.” Relations between China and West African leaders generally seem warm, whether they are democratically elected governments or military regimes.
That is certainly the case with Guinea, where China has pursued a relationship with the country’s leader, Captain Moussa Camara, even in the midst of a major political crisis and severe state violence. This week, the two nations concluded a “huge mining and oil deal.” The Guinean opposition has “rejected the deal estimated to be over seven billion dollars as illegal, immoral, and an affront to democracy,” but China appears unmoved by the criticism.
This incident seems to offer further evidence, then, that China’s operative policy is that so long as it can maintain positive relations with an African country’s leadership, it will ignore any domestic or international criticism of that relationship, and will moreover continue to work with those leaders until and unless they directly threaten Chinese interests. Given the trend toward an increasing Chinese presence in the region, the deal with Guinea comes as no big surprise – and will likely not be the last of its kind.