As China wades deeper into the continent’s economies, the turbulent pull of African politics grows stronger
“Adopt a low profile and never take the lead,” was an axiom of China’s elder statesman, the late Deng Xiaoping. When it comes to foreign policy, China’s leaders still usually stick to it. So it is odd, perhaps, that an African country of less than vital economic and strategic importance to China has brought it out of its shell.
China’s decision on July 11th to veto an American-led resolution in the United Nations that called for sanctions against Zimbabwe was an unusual move. By voting the same way as Russia, China still managed to avoid taking the lead. But its normal preference is to abstain from voting rather than veto Western initiatives in the UN. This time it decided to make a stronger point.
Chinese officials and the public generally have shown little sympathy for Western concerns about election-rigging in Zimbabwe. On the sidelines of a summit of G8 leaders in Japan this month, President Hu Jintao met South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki and relayed no more than China’s “concern” about the Zimbabwean crisis. China has avoided direct condemnation of Zimbabwe’s leader, Robert Mugabe. (His message of condolence over China’s deadly earthquake in May was politely noted by the state-controlled media.) At a summit of African leaders in Beijing in 2006 and during a week-long state visit to China in 2005, Mr Mugabe was received politely.
Chinese diplomats are worried about the precedent that would have been set by the proposed UN resolution: for foreign intervention in a domestic political dispute. (China does not want any such attention focused on its own internal problems, to say nothing of its putatively internal disputes with Taiwan.) It has been similarly unsettled by charges of war crimes brought by the International Criminal Court against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir in The Hague this week. Sudan is of considerable strategic importance to China because of its oil production, much of which China buys.
But there is no sign that China’s alarm over these developments will lead to greater confrontation between it and the West over Africa. China appears as anxious as ever to convince the West that it is trying, behind the scenes, to persuade Mr al-Bashir to rein in the violence in Darfur (though it will not be helped by allegations just aired by the BBC that, in violation of a UN arms embargo, China has been supplying trucks to Sudan’s military and training its pilots in Darfur). During the build-up to the Olympic games in Beijing next month China has a particularly strong incentive to appear cooperative with the West on Sudan. It does not want another public embarrassment such as it suffered in February when Steven Spielberg, a Hollywood film director, resigned from his advisory role to the games because of China’s (harmful, as he saw it) involvement in Sudan. It was embarrassed by the discovery in South Africa in April of a shipment of Chinese small arms destined for Zimbabwe. Chinese officials said the delivery was subsequently aborted.
Amid widespread Western disquiet over its engagement with Africa—especially in its willingness to turn a blind eye to corruption, authoritarianism and other political problems there—China will take some heart from a recent World Bank report that notes an “encouraging trend” in its rapidly growing economic engagement with Africa. China is helping to finance infrastructure projects in more than 35 African countries, says the report, with Zimbabwe and Sudan among the big recipients (Sudan has received about $1.3 billion from China so far). Only 7% of this finance is related to resource extraction, the bank says. The rest is for “broader development”. There will be, as the bank points out, a learning process for borrowers and financiers alike in this emerging relationship. Among issues that need to be grasped, it says, are how to enforce “environmental and social standards” in the projects concerned. China pays at least lip service to such issues, but it is far from fanatical about them. Turbulence in countries like Zimbabwe may well remind China that it is plying choppy waters in Africa. It will not be able to ignore the domestic politics of its friends there forever