Thursday, January 29, 2009
The Chinese government clearly thinks long-term and is highly pragmatic. It does not entirely trust world markets. Therefore, even if China goes slow on the implementation of the mining and infrastructure agreements to which it is already committed, we can expect to see China continue to take the necessary steps to maintain its rights to resume these projects at some future date, when conditions are more conducive. The important thing for China is to maintain a firm hold on African commodities until the day when the mines start working and the trucks start rolling again.
A key question for the Obama administration in this context will be what strategy it adopts towards Africa’s oil. Thinkers within the US Department of Defense in particular see access to oil from the Gulf of Guinea—broadly defined as the swathe from Mauritania to Angola—as a major strategic concern for the US. The neo-conservatives who wielded such influence under President Bush believed that this was best done by the projection of military power. In short, they believed that the US should plan to deploy its armed forces in such a way that it could secure Africa’s oil for the next generation, putting it into not merely a commercial competition with China, but a militarized one. This was some of the thinking behind the creation of an autonomous Africa Command, Africom. China, however, has shown no enthusiasm for supporting its commercial aspirations in Africa with military power. On the contrary, in recent years it has shown every sign of playing a greater role in some of the complex multilateral arrangements by which Africa is bound into global systems of governance. For the first time, China has committed troops to United Nations missions in Africa, for example.
How will the games of great powers affect Africa itself? There is no foreseeable future for industrialization in Africa. Some African countries were earning serious money in recent years, before the collapse of commodity prices, but there was little sign of any of them using it in the service of a serious development strategy while conditions were propitious. Now, that option has gone. In principle, a shortage of foreign exchange plus high food prices could spark a revival of African agriculture, but there is no serious evidence of that happening as yet, despite encouraging signs here and there. What we are likely to witness is a situation that is in some ways rather reminiscent of the period immediately before the colonization of Africa, during the third quarter of the nineteenth century, with few centres of power in Africa being able to guarantee the rule of law in the Western manner, and external interests investigating local permutations with a view to identifying viable local collaborators.