China: Africa's new best friend
Since the mid-1990s, China has embraced trade with several African economies. The overall volume of trade between the Asian giant and the African continent now exceeds 100 billion dollars annually.
As country after country was emerging anew from years of colonialisation, 29 African and Asian states met in April 1955 in the Indonesian city of Bandung to forge a bond based on "the urgent need to encourage the economic development of the Afro-Asian area”. Fifty-five years later, this dream is being fulfilled.
African economies are now freeing themselves from the inevitable links with their colonial masters and turning their gaze to the east instead. In recent years, China, in particular, has become the continent’s largest trading partner. In 2008, the total volume of bilateral trade between Africa and China reached a record 107 billion US dollars – ten times that of just eight years ago.
In the quest for new sources of raw materials to feed its economic growth, Beijing turned to Africa in the 1990s, attracted by its rich oil and mineral reserves. Since then, Chinese companies have expanded to other sectors such as construction, with the support of the authorities. Since coming to power in 2003, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Africa four times (2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009), touring 18 countries including Mali, Senegal, Cameroon, Gabon and Nigeria.
The Asian giant has adopted a strategy that seems to have borne fruit in Africa. Having had its taste of Western imperialism, China is careful to temper its rhetoric and to avoid unnecessary moralising; it relies on African voices at the UN and strikes a chord with the continent.
China "likes to say to African leaders that they are like them, they do not tolerate Western interference in their internal affairs," argues Antoine Glaser, editor in chief of the "Lettre du Continent", a specialist publication on Francophone Africa.
With this special friendship in place, Beijing, which trades with some 50 countries in Africa, also extends millions of dollars in financial aid to the continent. In 2005, China exempted taxes on imports from Africa and in November 2009, Beijing renewed its commitment to the continent by pledging loans totaling 10 billion dollars over the span of three years.
China’s involvement in Africa has not gone unnoticed by the continent's former colonial powers. Patrick Lucas, president of the African Committee of MEDEF, the French employers' association, said the playing field is no longer level, with China and Chinese companies having the advantage.
London and Paris continue to bank on their historical links and networks with Africa. "This is the fundamental error committed by France and the United Kingdom,” says analyst Antoine Glaser.
In contrast, China works in Africa “directly, without intermediaries", he adds.
Until the mid 1990s, French corporations controlled more than half of the markets of France's former colonies in Africa. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, large groups such as Areva and Total still have lucrative contracts on the continent but their influence is a fading one overseas, alongside France’s image.
Some companies have seen their contracts dry up. The French conglomerate Bolloré, for example, lost its concession for the port of Dakar in 2007 to the UAE. Yet other French companies have chosen to withdraw voluntarily: Bouygues has gradually retreated from the water and electricity sector in West Africa and Veolia has left Chad.
Yet despite the desire not to interfere in the internal affairs of its African trading partners, China too faces increasing pressures from local populations. The influx of cheap and efficient Chinese labour - estimated at about 500,000 people - feeds resentment.
Chinese companies rely on a workforce composed of Chinese citizens who live in isolation from the local population and do little to assimilate as they have little French or English.
Since 2002, Senegalese traders have accused their Chinese competitors of working illegally to monopolise the market at the expense of locals. "The small Chinese merchants on the street are very misunderstood," says Habib Tawa, journalist for the Francophone publication "Afrique-Asie".
In recent years, riots have also erupted among traders in Cameroon, Congo and Algeria, forcing some Chinese companies to rethink their strategies. Indications from the last couple of years suggest that the Chinese "are beginning to outsource some of their activities to local companies,” says Tawa.