x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Africa: China's new backyard

Chinese step up efforts to promote economic integration with resource-rich African states.

BEIJING // Colonel Safee is settled in his new home. "China is more open than I would have imagined," he said in the backstreets of northern Beijing. "I have many friends from African countries here." The Sudanese officer attends the National Defense University in Changping district in the capital, on the outskirts of a remote suburb in the north of the city. Eight months ago he left Africa's largest nation, linked with lucrative oil deals and sensitive politics with Beijing to move to China to enrol in a course in military strategy at an institution that is part of China's Central military commission headed by Hu Jintao, the president. Elite commanders from every corner of Africa attend Chinese-run courses. Chinese security guards at the university speak more French than English and information is treated like state secrets. But residents have become used to the presence of the African soldiers walking the dusty streets of the remote suburb. "We are happy here. They are friendly to us," one resident said. China's march into Africa is developing increasing political dimensions. Beijing's thirst for resources across the continent is bringing it closer into conflict with international communities. Since the China-Africa Forum was established 10 years ago, there has been a near correlation between Chinese and African growth rates, according to China's ministry of commerce. Between 2006 and 2008, Chinese companies invested US$5 billion (Dh18.3bn) in the continent. Western nations, which once had colonial links to African resources, have criticised China's relationships with what it considers rogue states. Earlier this month units of al Qa'eda declared they would target Chinese interests on the continent for Beijing's treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in China's north-west Xinjiang region, where about 200 people died in the deadliest unrest in six decades of Communist rule when ethnic tension erupted into violence. "Chinese foreign policy is being held hostage by domestic policy," says Huang Jing, an expert in Chinese development at the University of Singapore. "As Chinese interests spread over all the corners of the world it is becoming more integrated. The question remains if China will compromise political principles that global power should have," Mr Huang said. More than 800 Chinese companies have moved into the continent, extracting resources in exchange for contracts developing infrastructure crucial to African nations' development. Chinese investment has brought thousands of Chinese nationals scattered across every corner of the continent from traders in the north to construction and oil workers in crisis-torn Zimbabwe and Sudan where investments in oil are becoming increasingly crucial and political. Many Chinese, along with European and American workers, are under threat in hostile regions. China's engagement in Africa has one controversial difference to western power's involvement; its commitment to non-interference with domestic governments blamed for genocide and displacement of their own people. There are no official figures of how many Chinese work in Africa but Xinhua news agency estimates that about 750,000 have settled on the continent. Chinese labourers are as prone to kidnapping in Nigeria and Sudan as American and European workers, security analysts said. China must decide how to deal with the threat of al Qa'eda and rebels from Nigeria to Sudan who oppose governments that China supports. "I am kind of sceptical about this. China has a principle of non-intervention but it uses it to justify others not interfering in their own affairs, issues like human rights abuse and the unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang," said Mr Huang. "Like European and American companies, security in certain African companies is a similar threat to Chinese," said Craig Bond, the chief executive of Standard Bank, Africa's largest bank, which advises Chinese firms on investing in the continent. "However, generally it seems less of an issue to the Chinese companies we deal with," Mr Bond said. The supposed separation of politics and business internationally contrasts the connection between the two in China, where the biggest investors in Africa, such as China National Petroleum Corp, are still state-owned. "Africa has everything," said Chang Yong, who is part of the new generation of Chinese businessmen working in Africa. He managed a local team mining chrome in Zimbabwe. Since then, the Zimbabwe firm has been acquired by a Chinese company. "We tried to do another investment in Zimbabwe but the investment failed. The government was very bad at that time. The problem was the politics. It wasn't developing its economy," Mr Chang said. "Investors need to know what their long-term plans are. There is no security for the investor," he said. Mr Bond said: "I don't think there will be a slowing down in African Chinese business. We are now again seeing an increase in investing in mining materials in Africa." dvincent@thenational.ae