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Fall 2007

Brangelina vs. Chinese Mercantilism in Africa

Anthony Lake was national security adviser to President Bill Clinton during his first term. Now a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Lake is an adviser to presidential candidate Barack Obama. His most recent book is 6 Nightmares: The Real Threats to American Security. Lake spoke with NPQ in September.

NPQ | Some say China today is the new colonialist and neo-imperialist—extracting African resources directly or unequally trading manufactured goods for resources. Others say, or at least hope, that China is a “co-partner” in development without colonial history, helping to build infrastructure and create jobs in Africa.

On balance, which of these pictures is more accurate in your view?

Anthony Lake | I would rather call it a classic mercantilist policy. China is using infrastructural/developmental projects as a means of buying influence in the pursuit of its commercial interests and particularly in the pursuit of its interests in acquiring energy resources. We have begun to see the beginning of a backlash in Africa against China’s presence, but, in general, it’s working.

Also, China offers political support to reprehensible regimes, and engages in business practices that are often unethical and, I suspect, would be illegal for American companies.

In my view, China is driven less by geo-political ambitions in Africa than by the growing need to protect its commercial interests and need for the continent’s energy resources. Examples of China’s growing economic interests in Africa include: China’s oil imports from Africa account today for 30 percent of its total external oil dependence; in 2006, Angola surpassed Saudi Arabia to become China’s leading external supplier of oil; and as of mid-2006 the total amount of the Chinese Export-Import bank loans to Africa is valued at over $12.5 billion in infrastructural development alone.

NPQ | Even where China is having a positive economic impact it is said to play amoral resourcepolitik, turning a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuses which the big Western-led institutions and Western government aid agencies have done so much to try to stop through their lending or giving practices.

Sudan is the clearest case in point. Way back during the Clinton administration you called on China to become a responsible stakeholder in the emerging world order. You said “we need a system in which the great powers all play by the rules that are to their mutual benefit. This contrasts with the 19th-century view of great powers that are in perpetual rivalry, in which one works against the interests of the others.”

How does China’s behavior in Sudan shape up on this score?

Lake | While I continue to believe that China should be a responsible stakeholder, it has so far focused, as I’ve said, primarily on its economic interests. China has called on the Sudanese government to approve a hybrid African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force, but there has been little evidence that China is using its influence to put serious pressure on the Sudanese government to do all it can to end its role in the genocide.

Of course, another reason that the Chinese fly diplomatic protection missions for Sudan, Iran and others in the UN Security Council is that the Chinese are committed to the principle of absolute sovereignty and non-intervention in the internal affairs of any nation – a posture that suits them well in the light of their own internal abuses. This 19th century-view of sovereignty is very consistent with their 19th-century mercantilist view of the world. I believe it is one that could change over time, given the realities of globalization. But only over time.

NPQ | According to official Chinese figures, by the end of the 1980s trade with Africa only totaled $12 million. By last year (2006), it was $55 billion. There are the huge infrastructure loans and investment you mentioned.

At the same time, the grandchildren of colonialism—Bono, Bill ( Clinton) and Bill and Melinda (Gates), Tony (Blair), Brangelina and Madonna—are funding vaccines, malaria nets and adopting children.

Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg have joined these two approaches to Africa by pressuring China on Sudan as the Olympics approach.

What does this division of labor say about the world order today?

Lake | I would not attribute absolute altruism to the West or deny that Chinese development projects have done some real good in Africa and for Africans.

What all of this says is that the creation of a more civilized world order is a long term project, and that the way to deal with the Chinese is not by hyperventilation but by pursuing efforts to help them see the advantage of integration into a mutually beneficial system, and, at the same time, cooperating with them when we have common interests while competing vigorously in areas where our interests diverge—for example, in access to energy resources.

I do believe there will be progress. The pressure brought on them by people like Mia Farrow and Steven Spielberg over the Olympics apparently led to their doing more (if not enough) over Darfur. This shows that when it can be couched in terms of their interests, the Chinese can be brought into a more positive role on such issues.