China's African Adventure


Recent months have seen the Darfur region of Sudan become a cause célèbre. There was Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Defence Minister Brendan Nelson getting muddled over whether to send Australian troops there. Then there are the Hollywood stars penning letters to papers and holding parties in Cannes.

Conflicts in Sudan have raged for over 20 years and in Darfur, the fighting has been going on for four years. The Western press continues to depict the Darfur conflict as a fight between a complicated array of groups from the Christian South allegedly fighting the Northern Islamic militia, the ‘Janjaweed.’

But the real story is (as usual) not a ‘straightforward’ sectarian war. These conflicts are depicted as another example of ‘barbaric’ types beset by sectarian fervour engaging in murderous territorial campaigns. The story, in fact, has more to do with the challenge posed by China to the US and its allies. And this is helps explain why US lawmakers and international politicians have been calling for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics unless China moves on human rights in Darfur.

Why would US lawmakers link Darfur to the Olympics? Because Sudan is an oil-rich part of Africa that is providing a significant amount of oil to their global archenemy China. And one way to contain China’s influence is to slow down its double digit economic growth figures.

I interviewed Farid Omar from the University of Toronto’s Horn of Africa Relief Society for my radio program a few weeks back. Omar was rather blunt about the geo-political nature of the conflict in Darfur:

The US involvement in the war has nothing to do with human rights. It’s primarily to do with oil. The US wants to have access to oil both in Southern Sudan and Western Darfur. The US backed the South in the war with arms and finance and all sorts of support. The idea was to weaken the Sudanese Government and then for the US to have access to oil. But that didn’t work.

[Sudan] borders Chad and Mali, which have a lot of oil. The whole region is an oil corridor, which is strategic to the United States.

The stumbling block is China because the US sees China having a monopoly on oil in Sudan and investment throughout Africa. The oil in Sudan is controlled by Chinese corporations the US is using human rights as a pretext to fuel the conflict in the Sudan, and then to pressure the Sudanese Government with sanctions or even military intervention.

The whole idea is to isolate China and weaken it politically and economically in the African continent and the boycott is designed to pressure and to discredit China.

Sudanese refugees fleeing Darfur

Of course, whether China’s interest in Africa is ‘benign’ or is purely out of self-interest is arguable. Oil, gas and non-conditional loans surely translate into UN votes, as well as ‘influence’ and increased global power. China may talk about a ‘peaceful rise’ but there is no denying that there is enough discomfort in the international community about its intentions to ensure the US has willing coalition partners for the ‘War On Terror.’

There is another element to this, of course. Professor David Chandler from the University of Westminster had this to say:

I think the West is very happy to talk up the influence of China [in Africa]to then use China as a whipping boy for the failure of Millennium Development Goals It’s a handy thing to say that this evil malign influence is undermining everything the West is doing in the region. The reality is very different. America and the West are offering African States very little but because China has trading interests and [is]offering investment and has a different approach to conflict resolution, it appears to be much more powerful. But that’s largely because of Western indifference.

Chandler notes that the West had no problem with China’s human rights record when it started trading with the new economic power.

Then there is the question: ‘Where are our journalists?’

My hunch is that most of them are rightly scared of being labeled the 21st century equivalent of ‘Hanoi Jane’ for exposing what are essentially very clever China containment policies. No one wants to support the wrong side on the eve of a war. Others might actually believe that China is a frightening power, and want nothing of the love-fest that occurs when business and China get together. None of which is irrational but it does make a mockery of claims that independent journalism informing readers or listeners about ‘important’ events.

In the US, there are prominent names writing about China but most of them write from a ‘baddie China’ perspective. There’s the ‘environment heading towards disaster’ story, the ‘when will they have the rule of law’ story, the ‘One Child’ story,  and so on. My favourite this week was seeing a quote from my old lecturer at Columbia University, Andrew Nathan, on the back cover of James Mann’s new book, The China Fantasy:  

Mann puts the stiletto to wishful thinking and self-serving prophecies about China and reminds us of the costs of our passive policies toward this rising authoritarian power.

Quite frankly, I am sick of hearing about how bad China is and simply want to know when ‘Our Boys’ are going to launch war.

Which brings me back to the Olympics. The boycott is a sign of things to come. Africans caught in these clever games know that this is just an old story, with a new enemy and a 21st century twist electronic wizardry and a much more compliant media which doesn’t help innocent civilians very much.

One person who is having a field day is the Office of Net Assessment’s  Andrew Marshall, an expert in Cold War strategy. Because Russia is ‘out’ and China ‘in,’ and clandestine games of power are back in vogue. Oil is the new ‘black’ and the 21st century version of ‘Reds Under The Beds’ is a sort of ‘Yellas Under The Futon.’

Care for a game of Caspian Checkmate anyone?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.