PRAGUE, 18 January 2006 -- When Foreign Minister Li Zhaozing stepped off his plane at the Cape Verde Islands this month, he was opening a new phase of China’s strategic plan to deepen ties with Africa.
During his six-country sweep through West, Central, and North Africa, Li has offered a package well-suited to countries with chronic development deficiencies, where simple steps can have more impact than hi-technology.
For instance, in the Cape Verde Islands off the West African coast, Li made available financing for a medical consulting center and a maternity clinic. He also oversaw opening of negotiations for investment in ceramics and fish-processing factories, a dam, and a national sports stadium. Locals responded by saying they want a "strategic partnership" with Beijing.
On his next stop, Senegal, Li cancelled $20 million in debt, made a cash donation of over $3 million, provided extra help for flood victims and for sporting and cultural projects, and restored defunct cooperation in medicine.
By the time he got to Mali, his package was being described as a new type of "win-win" partnership for Africa and China alike.
As senior analyst Jean-Philippe Beja of the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris sees it, Li's trip had a double purpose. "There are two aspects to it, one is the necessity to have raw materials, especially energy -- gas and oil -- from Nigeria and [elsewhere], and of course China is looking for sources of raw materials all over the world; the other aspect is that China is trying to diversify its relationships in the world," he said. "After having been monopolized by Sino-American relations until the end of last century, China has been trying to emerge on the world scene."
Beja noted that China has first sought to establish a new profile in Asia. Then, last year, it moved to do the same in Latin America. And this year is Africa's turn.
Beijing is using the experience it gained in the Mao Zedong era, in that the present projects it's involved in are very similar to those of the 1960s and 70s. And it is not starting cold in Africa, having laid the groundwork for increased cooperation in the last two years.
For instance, in 2004 it moved to secure oil from Gabon, nickel, platinum, cobalt, and copper from South Africa, and most importantly it has contracts for 30,000 barrels of crude oil per day from Nigeria, Africa's biggest producer. It has followed up only this month by paying $2.3 billion for a stake in a Nigerian offshore oil and gas field.
The last deal appears to be unfortunate timing. Long-simmering trouble is bursting into the open in the Nigerian delta, where poverty-stricken locals are threatening a violent campaign to close down all the oil fields unless they gain greater benefits.
But China has never been known for shying away from business on grounds of human-rights abuses. It’s policy has always been to ignore blemishes in a foreign country's record book, and it similarly expects not to be questioned on its own rights performance.
Analysts say this "hands-off" policy, which sees China dealing with African regimes shunned by the West, risks lending support to Africa's endemic corruption.
"They have been engaging [for example] in oil dealings with Sudan, a country which of course is in the 'rogues gallery', at the same time as the humanitarian crisis there; and they have been very active in seeking support in Zimbabwe, which is 'patria non grata' in the West," Alexander Neill of London’s Royal United Services Institute said.
Neill added that in Chinese eyes, their engagement with Africa is just part of their extended outreach, aimed at securing a prominent place in the economically globalized world.
Moreover, Beijing can argue that it is doing its part in the major drive headed by the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrial countries to lift Africa out of its chronic backwardness, according to Neil. "Given that in the G-8 and elsewhere Africa has been highlighted as an area for humanitarian assistance on a massive scale, China will argue that they are at the forefront of bringing Africa into some kind of economic recovery, and [helping] development for the future," he said.
Also, China never forgets the existence of Taiwan, the anticommunist stronghold that it regards as a breakaway province. Foreign Minister Li will have derived extra pleasure from visiting Liberia and Senegal on his latest trip, as both countries have switched their diplomatic recognition away from Taipei to Beijing.