This evening I attended a fascinating lecture by Mr. Alex Vines of the Royal Chatham House on Africa's growing strategic relevance for the West. Mr. Vines spoke particularly of US, UK and French interests.
Listening to him speak, I began to recall comments made by my Beijing colleagues with regard to their commercial activity in Africa. "We are not doing anything that Western powers haven't already done," they told me. A cursory examination of Western activities in Africa would suggest that they are, in large measure, right.
America's major African allies are Kenya, Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria - none of which have held credible elections in the past few years. The United States has also recently begun down-playing humanitarian causes in Africa to gain leverage against the growing powers of India and China. A foremost example of this is Equatorial Guinea. For the French, the Elf corruption scandal is a blemish on their African ventures, adding to the already existing Rwandan blemishes. The English, too, have had their share of underhanded activities across the continent.
What lies behind many - if not all - of these activities are the national interests of the respective Western powers. The need for oil, resources, and diplomatic allies drives most Western interests in Africa. Out of the countries here in question, only the English stand out for their particular dedication to humanitarian causes, though one must also be careful not to exaggerate the extent of this activity.
Given this history, then, why all the fuss about China? Yes, it is a Communist country; yes, the nature of Chinese business practices are altogether dubious and quite generally in violation of international standards; yes, the Chinese effectively sustain rogue states. We cannot, however, point a finger at China without wagging a finger or two at the West. This is not to forgive China for its sins (which are indeed many), but to suggest that the novelty surrounding contemporary Chinese activity in Africa is slightly exaggerated. Not only have the Chinese been engaged in similar activity elsewhere, but other powers have too.
Two wrongs certainly don't make a right; and this, most certainly, isn't the point I'm attempting to make. The point I am trying to make, however, is that at the end of the day strategy drives both Western and Chinese interest in Africa. At the end of the day, it's the strategy, stupid.