China-EU Rivalry in Africa Sharpens

Inter Press Service website. If China needed another prompt that the European powers have finally woken up to the fact they were losing the competition for the Africa pie, it came with France’s bid to recapture lost ground this month. French President Nicolas Sarkozy presided over the 25th Africa-France summit in Nice where for the first time he tacitly acknowledged the success of China’s expansion in Africa by calling on French businesses to emulate it.

Without mentioning China by name, Sarkozy declared it was time for Europe to use infrastructure investment along with development aid and fight to increase its influence in Africa once again. “Africa is our future… the African continent is asserting itself more and more as a major player in international life,” said Sarkozy. “We cannot govern a 21st century world with a 20th century institution”.

The two-day summit, which ended June 1, 2010, underscored Europe’s new drive to step up its investment in Africa and imitate China’s successful formula of undertaking infrastructure projects and supporting private investment to win hearts and minds.

To make his message heard Sarkozy had invited executives of some of France’s leading companies: Areva, the country’s nuclear giant, oil giant Total, France Telecom, Veolia, the world’s largest water supply company and others.

“This summit is meant to bring policy and reality closer and facilitate French businesses to expand in Africa,” says Anna Stahl, researcher with the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.

“European Union (EU) businesses have been reluctant to engage in Africa and Chinese companies that enjoy the backing of the state have had the advantage. Now France wants to lend support to its companies and redress the situation.”

While EU policy towards Africa has always featured an economic aspect, the model of preferential trade combined with aid was dominant, according to Stahl. “Now the discourse has become more pragmatic,” she says.

The change is dictated by the staggering figures of China’s expansion in Africa. A recent report in China’s ‘21st Century Business Herald’ newspaper said China’s direct investment in Africa has increased more than ten-fold, jumping from a modest 80 million US dollars in 2003 to 1.36 billion dollars in 2009.

At the 2009 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, Beijing committed to 10 billion dollars in low-cost loans and an additional one billion dollars in loans to support the growth of small and medium African enterprises.

At about the same time that President Sarkozy was meeting African leaders in Nice, China was holding its own seminar on how to counter negative perceptions about its rise in Africa.

Recent official media reports have been full of headlines like “the West envies China’s sway in Africa” (the Global Times) and “China and the West spar over diplomatic ethics in Africa” (Xinhua news agency’s website).

Chinese companies have encountered upsets in several African countries where they have invested to gain valuable assets – being accused of turning a blind eye to corruption and violating local laws. All this has fuelled a climate of suspicion in China that the West is waging a covert war to frustrate China’s expansion in Africa.

“China’s behaviour in Africa plays by the rules set by western powers themselves,” said an article in the Chinese edition of Global Times. “While no western government can speak out publicly against China’s investment in the continent they have mobilised the media and various non-governmental organisations to find faults with China”.

‘The 21st Century China-Africa Investment and Cooperation Forum’ held in Beijing on May 28 revealed China was shifting gears to engage more players in its dealings with African countries, courting relations with commercial associations and social groups beyond the immediate ruling elites.

“Chinese media needs to ‘go out’ too and explain to African people what China’s development model is all about,” Xie Boyang, vice-chairman of the China-Africa Business Council, was quoted as saying at the forum. Xie claimed the absence of Chinese media in Africa meant that its investment there was being misrepresented by western media as “the return of colonialism”.

But some of the participants in the forum spoke also about the Chinese mining companies in Zambia and other African countries that have been found to use obsolete and highly-polluting equipment that has been banned inside China by the country’s new stringent environmental policies. Calls were heard too about the need to rethink China’s quest at all cost to control energy assets in Africa that is fuelling anti-Chinese perceptions.

China’s re-examination of its practices in Africa comes at a time when the EU is wrestling to clarify its own position towards China’s expansion on the continent.

Two years ago the EU approached Beijing with a trilateral initiative on Africa, suggesting China and the EU should work on a partnership that involves Africa as an equal partner. But the response from Beijing has been lukewarm.

“They don’t see the trilateral initiative as their own,” says Stahl. “They worry that agreeing to it could be interpreted by the Africans as if China and the EU are negotiating above their heads.”

This article, published on Inter Press Service website, was written by Antoaneta Becker, China Correspondent for the Inter Press Service.

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