Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Although communist China established its first diplomatic ties in Africa 50 years ago -- with Egypt in May 1956 -- only in recent years has China stepped up a broad push to expand trade, secure energy sources for its booming economy, and increase its political influence across the continent.
In doing so, it has largely ignored U.S. concerns about the wisdom of propping up regimes like those ruling Sudan and Zimbabwe. In the U.N. Security Council China has actively blocked efforts to pressurize Khartoum over the Darfur conflict, while earlier objecting to discussions about Zimbabwe's political crisis.
Hu's current trip takes in three countries whose governments are less controversial -- Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya -- but it will nonetheless help Beijing's drive to lock up support at the U.N. for its positions.
At the now-defunct U.N. Commission for Human Rights, for instance, China and developing countries tended to defend and vote for each other, routinely obstructing efforts by mainly Western nations to condemn rights abuses.
Unlike Western countries, China makes few demands of its new partners in Africa and does not lecture African governments on democracy or human rights.
At an Asian-African Summit a year ago, Hu announced four principles for ties with Africa, the first being "respect and support [for] each other in politics."
A taskforce sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations reported late last year that Chinese policies in Africa were eroding democratic gains and undermining Western efforts to use aid and investments to prod governments towards good governance and away from corruption.
Beijing's only requirement of African governments is that they support its efforts to isolate Taiwan in the international community.
China insists that partners support its position that Taiwan is a rebellious province, and every time Taipei tries to exercise autonomy - for example, its annual attempt to be allowed observer status at the World Health Organization assembly - China rallies developing nations to defeat the move.
Taiwan's few diplomatic allies are mostly poor developing nations, including six in Africa. Some of its former allies have in the past been won over to the Beijing camp by financial inducements.
Hu's tour comes on the heels of his visit last week to the U.S., where President Bush asked him to do more to push Sudan into compliance over Darfur, but found little support, according to the White House.
Observers have tied this stance both to China's traditional opposition to outside
interference in nations' domestic affairs, and to its significant oil interests in Sudan.
China has become Khartoum's number one oil customer and has a 40 percent stake in Sudan's biggest oil operation.
Hu's trip this week takes him not to Sudan but to Nigeria, another key African oil producer and a major crude exporter to the U.S. market.
This year alone, Chinese oil producer CNOOC Ltd. has bought a 45 percent share in one undeveloped Nigerian oilfield and a 35 percent stake in an exploration bid in the Niger Delta. Another Chinese corporation, Sinopec, has stakes in three Nigerian oil operations.
Elsewhere in Africa, China also has oil interests or is in preparatory talks with countries including Algeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Chad and Libya.
With both China and the U.S. -- as well as other customers like India -- looking to expand and diversify their sources of energy supply, competition is set to grow, with Africa playing an increasingly important role.
Currently Africa only accounts for nine percent of global oil reserves, but the continent is largely unexplored, and industry analysts expect future significant discoveries.
China already gets a full 25 percent of its oil supplies from Africa, up from 15 percent in the 1980s, according to the Hong Kong-based French Center for Research on Contemporary China.
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