Monday, October 26, 2009

The truth about China-Africa relations

I FEEL duty bound to pen this piece as a rejoinder to Olufemi Oyedele's letter titled 'Who is afraid of China?' (The Guardian, October 8, 2009). Oyedele lives in London and coincidentally, I was on a research tour of England at the time he wrote, gathering materials on an aspect of my research on China's diplomacy bordering on Western responses to China's ascendancy in global affairs. Oyedele's views, I must say, were typically Western. He cautioned Nigeria not to grant China's prayer for a $50 billion oil deal on grounds of the former's poor industrial record, penchant for underpayment, corruption, human rights abuses etc - a jumble of things that have little or no bearing on business transactions. Or, how does China's human rights record affect the pricing of oil blocks?

I don't know who Oyedele works for, but I got curious when he remarked thus concerning China National Offshore Oil Corporation's (CNOOC) bid for Nigerian oil blocks: 'They are proponents of 'cheap labour' and may not match the pay of other employers like Chevron, Texaco and Agip in the same sector'. He forgot to add Shell and Total to the list of super-paying Western oil companies!

While I will never say China cannot improve on its international economic relations, I will unhesitatingly declare that it presents a golden opportunity for developing nations of Africa to secure a fairer deal in global political economy, which never served their interests while Western hegemony held sway. There is so much propaganda being churned out in the Western world to scare Third world countries from doing business with China simply because they realise they are losing influence and grips on global affairs to China. The media and academia of the West are awash with news reports and books that are nothing short of propaganda materials. As a matter of fact, the frenzy with which Western universities are setting up centres and special programmes on China is phenomenal. Far-sighted people that they are, they want to understand how to cope with the great challenge China presents to their system and well-being. Some Nigerian academics make money by consulting for Western inquirers on diverse aspects of Chinese penetration of Africa.

To illustrate the Western media-academia anti-China propaganda, Adam Blenford opens a November 26, 2007, report, tongue-in-cheek, on the BBC website as follows: 'In almost every corner of Africa there is something that interests China'. TimesOnline in its October 13, 2009 issue laments: 'There is now barely a country on the continent (Africa) that does not have a sizeable Chinese presence'. If you talk of books, you will find Western titles like these: Mark Leonard's 'What does China think?', James Kynge's 'China Shakes the World: the Rise of a Hungry Nation', Frank Ching's 'China: The Truth About its Human Rights Record', Alexandria Harney's 'The China Price: The True Cost of Chinese Competitive Advantage'. The list is endless and more are at the press in a frenzy.

The grouses of the West against China are basically economic. The West is suffering a complex economic siege from China. They are the preachers of free trade but by the time China opened up to the global market from its socialist cocoon, signing WTO's agreements etc, it in no time began to beat them at their own game. The forms the siege is taking can be condensed into three. One, China is causing business closures in the West by offering high quality, cheaper consumer goods ranging from toys to garments to Western consumers. Two, unemployment is not helped by the growing recourse by Western businesses to relocate to China to take advantage of cheaper overheads. Many so-called Western products we buy in stores in London, Paris, New York, Amsterdam etc are now only Western in name, courtesy of the trend called outsourcing. Factories physically get uprooted and got shipped to China. China has earned the sobriquet: 'Factory of the World.' And, only in the second week of this October, America's General Motors sold its Hummer Jeep brand to a Chinese firm, Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Equipment Corporation.

Three, China is also taking over the overseas markets over which the West used to enjoy a structural monopoly. These include African countries. But, unlike the West, that more or less enforced draconian reforms on Africa in the throes of economic crisis without any tangible support critical to recovery, China's in-roads in Africa come with support in the form of funds with no strings attached and investments in critical infrastructure. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda - a model African leader - spoke the truth in a recent October 12 Reuters report. To quote him, "Our resources have been exploited and served others. Western companies have soiled Africa to a large extent and still do...The Chinese bring Africa what it needs: investment and money for governments and companies. China invests in infrastructure, builds streets." When you view the $50 billion oil deal China is offering Nigeria, which Oyedele is kicking against, ask what the status quo is with the oil blocks the so-called Western oil majors want to keep. Which is more beneficial to Nigeria? CNOOC's offer or the oil majors'? The lawmakers in Abuja handling the new petroleum bill are living witnesses to the extent the 'oil majors' are going to frustrate its contents which are meant to stop their abuses and promote our interests.

To be sure, China is not a charity organisation. It is in the global market to improve the lot of its economy and its citizens. Much, then, as it offers Africa a better deal compared to the West, the onus is on African countries to develop strategies to relate with it beneficially. To achieve this, China deserves our study. Unfortunately, there is no funding for such locally, except researchers turn to Western agencies (Ford, MacArthur Foundations etc) for grants! In my case, I rely on my own resources. But how many can? What may pass for Nigeria's policy towards China, from what I have seen, is poor. For example, in a Joint Commission document undergoing implementation process, Nigeria is calling on China to diversify its interest in oil and include the prospecting of our 'abundant mineral resources'. This is quite stupid as that precisely aligns with China's interests. However, from my exploration of China, from Beijing to Shanghai, Anhui to Guangzhou, China has much better things to offer us if we only but ask and insist.

For example, instead of taking the billions of dollars China so easily offers from its over $2 trillion foreign reserves for infrastructure, we can insist on China developing our infrastructure on a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) basis. Chinese giant infrastructure companies, in their hundreds if not thousands, need to be kept busy and the gargantuan foreign reserves have to be invested here and there to minimise the risk of a dollar slump, among others. I was at a negotiation in May 2007 involving Nigerian government officials and a Chinese power company for the building of a hydropower facility. The company's president, without any request from the Nigerian side, said his country was willing to bankroll the project, which ran into hundreds of millions of dollars. A permanent secretary promptly declined without consultation. 'Nigeria will fund it', he said. It sounds patriotic on the face of it, coming on the heels of our exit from debt peonage to the Creditors' Clubs, but it was my candid view that it would have been better to ask whether the company would be willing to execute the project on a BOT basis. Till this day, the project is on hold; and similar examples abound. With no funding, the company has gone back home. We can also create a platform for the private sector to engage in joint ventures with Chinese companies in critical sectors like power generation, agro-industry, road and rail construction etc. China is no doubt a true friend of Africa. We only need to leverage the Chinese on our own terms.