Annexed by China – for good or ill

View from Africa

To the casual visitor, the most obvious sign of China in Africa is also the most fleeting indication of the country's deepening engagement with the continent: On the road into Nairobi you pass a green and red arch commemorating Beijing's friendship with Kenya.

Clones of this giant Chinese character lie in wait outside a host of other African airports. But the reality of China's surge towards becoming the continent's largest trading partner is borne out by what lies beneath your vehicle: the road was built by a Chinese contractor.

If the African experience is anything to go by, China's move to strengthen its investment in Brazil is unlikely to be its last. The Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University in South Africa issues a weekly update on Sino-African commerce and development. The bulletins reveal a transformative geopolitical phenomenon. This week's highlight was the US$15bn (£9.5bn) contracts signed between Ghana and China for infrastructure projects and loans for oil and gas development. Ghana's President, John Atta Mills, eschewed a high-profile global summit in New York on the future of aid to spend six days in Beijing sealing the largest deal of its kind in his nation's history.

Ghana is not alone. China's trade with Africa has grown from £6.3bn in 2000 to more than £66bn by the end of the decade – outstripping everyone but the EU and the US in volume.

Monika Thakur, an analyst with the South African Institute of International Affairs, has been monitoring this surge: "With China as a new player in geopolitics, Africa has overnight become an area of interest for global powers, drawing in the US and EU to engage more directly with the continent. Intentions and impact aside, China must be given credit for this – making the world re-engage with the continent."

The phenomenon has changed the continent's relationship with the world, brought Chinese contractors, finance, labour and know-how to practically every outpost, and prompted a commodities boom that cushioned Africa's ride into and out of the global recession. Indeed, its impact in Brazil is unlikely to ever reach quite that extent, for the simple reason that the South American nation is a far more developed and diversified economy.

In Africa, though, a decade of China's presence has coincided with the continent's strongest period of economic growth. A McKinsey report in June pointed to average real GDP growth 4.9 per cent from 2000 through to 2008.

With its inherent challenge to post-colonial relationships, assessments of the impact of China tend to be accompanied by language like "invasion" or "scramble". At its worst, this perspective approaches "Sinophobia", and ignores the positive aspects of China's challenge to traditional Western engagement with the continent, argues Markus Weimer, a research fellow at the UK think-tank Chatham House: "China offers African countries greater choice," he says. "This means that they can choose, for better or for worse, with whom they will do business."

The "Beijing model" has often meant unprecedented bartering, with raw materials traded for infrastructure. The largest single example of this, prior to Ghana, came in central Africa in the Democratic Republic of Congo with a mega-deal worth more than $10bn (£6.3bn).

The traditional criticism of China's search for resources – that it does little to encourage more sophisticated and diverse economies – sometimes ignores examples such as Ethiopia where Beijing's engagement in a non- resource-rich country has done more to drive economic growth, arguably, than decades of Western humanitarian aid.

The responsibility for harnessing the increased interest in their continent will fall to African leaders, says Thakur: "It is still premature to fully comprehend Beijing's intentions and the impact of their relationship with Africa – but African leaders must seize the opportunities that China brings and fashion it in such a way that benefits their countries, region and the continent as a whole."

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