Wikileaks – China, the US and Africa
What do the cables really tell us?
Deborah Bräutigam and Ryan Briggs
China‘s relations with Africa hit the headlines again recently with the publication of what seemed to be sensational revelations in a dozen or so of the Wikileaks cables. We’ve read that the U.S. State Department’s top Africa expert believes that China is a “pernicious economic competitor” with “no morals” in its African dealings. US embassies report that Chinese nationals are implicated in cases of counterfeit products and environmental damage and at least one alleged incident of bribery. Many Chinese-run companies operating in Africa have poor labor relations and safety standards, and their tendency to bring in large numbers of Chinese workers goes over poorly in African countries with high unemployment. We read that the Chinese remain engaged in countries with human rights abuses: Sudan (where the West has imposed sanctions) and Zimbabwe (where the West has actually imposed almost no economic sanctions).
Yet for anyone reading major newspapers these past few years, none of this is news. Do the Wikileaks cables reveal anything new?
Much of what they reveal about America’s worldview is not surprising. Assistant Secretary of State Ambassador Johnnie Carson, for example, “stressed the fact that Nigeria [the largest oil supplier on the continent] is the most important country in Africa for the United States.” The United States also signaled its concern about Chinese natural resource extraction when it listed Chinese control over African mines as especially worthy of US intelligence gathering efforts. Still, when analyzed together, the sometimes undiplomatic cables from America’s top state department officials contain at least three interesting revelations about the US, China, and Africa.
First, U.S. State Department opinion on China is clearly split. Ambassador Carson’s comments about Chinese involvement in Africa have been widely reported in the media.
A dispatch from Kenya signed by Ambassador Michael Ranneberger pointed to numerous problems caused by the expanded Chinese presence, including smuggling, alleged bribery, wildlife poaching, and the export of counterfeit products. U.S. diplomats in Nigeria quote a trade unionist who complained that the Chinese ignored local laws and safety standards.
However, there is no State Department consensus on the overwhelmingly negative view put forward by Carson and Ranneberger. Comparing across the cables makes this very clear. For example, Ambassador Clark T. Randt, writing from Beijing, suggests that the PRC has a “new-found (if still somewhat grudging) […] interest in internationally accepted donor principles such as transparency, good governance, environmental and labor protections, and corporate social responsibility.” While not challenging the idea that China is self-interested (what country isn’t?), he posits that “China is beginning to understand the merits of international assistance standards not for altruistic reasons, but for achieving China’s own bottom-line imperatives of a more secure international position and better-protected economic interests in third countries.”
Where Ambassador Carson sees a China that will grow more dangerous over time, Ambassador Randt sees a China that will “mature” into a donor that looks a lot more like the US.
Second, some diplomats are far better informed than others about China-in-Africa.
American diplomats in Nigeria, for example, admitted that some of their “confidential” reporting came from reading the international press. Cables from Nigeria, Kenya, or the DRC contain no hint that American diplomats had access to new information on Chinese activities in their countries (aside from the bribery allegations in Kenya), or even any direct interaction with their Chinese counterparts. In two cases, however, US diplomats reported surprisingly constructive analyses of Chinese engagement in their host countries.
A September 2008 cable from Sudan details some of the surprisingly extensive ongoing discussions between the Chinese ambassador to Sudan Li Chengwen and the US embassy in Khartoum. For example, China’s ambassador was concerned that moves by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue a war crimes arrest warrant for Sudanese president Bashir would make the Darfur crisis harder to solve, suggesting that it had “hardened the rebels’ stance towards peace.”
The US embassy concurred with the Chinese analysis of the ICC move: “Li’s concern that the issuance of an arrest warrant for President Bashir could have profound destabilizing effects are well founded…the ICC indictment could set off a chain reaction of violence and instability. China’s encouragement of GOS [Government of Sudan] internal mobilization and international engagement, including with the ICC, is both useful and helpful.” This nuanced and detailed report contrasts with the dismissive and superficial comments attributed to Ambassador Carson during his visit to Nigeria: “The Chinese are dealing with the Mugabe’s [sic] and Bashir’s [sic] of the world”.
US Ambassador to Angola, Dan Mozena, also reported on a visit with his counterpart, Chinese ambassador Zhang Bolun: “The conversation with Zhang was surprising in its rich content and constructive, collaborative tone … [for example] He was positive and pragmatic about the forthcoming negotiations toward a new [Chinese] commercial line of credit for Angola.”
Ambassador Mozena’s reports are particularly noteworthy both for their balanced, thoughtful approach, and for the new, detailed information they contain about Chinese engagement in Angola, a country that supplies both China and the United States with significant quantities of oil.
It had already been widely reported that China’s export credit agency, China Eximbank, had committed lines of credit worth $4.5 billion to support Angola’s reconstruction between 2004 and 2006. (China Development Bank has also provided a line of credit worth $1.2 billion, which is being drawn down for Angolan agriculture projects.) But Mozena’s cable confirms some new details on China Eximbank’s involvement.
We learn that China’s past oil-backed lines of credit have been slow to disburse. Out of $4.5 billion committed since 2004, only $2.5 billion had been spent as recently as January 2009, only about $500 million per year. Repayments for the loans spent to date have been made through direct shipments of oil from Block 18 (jointly operated by Chinese firm Sinopec, Angola’s state company Sonangol, a Hong Kong company China International Fund, and British Petroleum: BP), valued at the “prevailing market price”. Analysts have long wondered how China’s large, commodity-backed loans are actually structured. Now we have a bit more information.
Oil-backed credits are not new for Angola. Western banks such as the UK’s Standard Chartered and the Royal Bank of Scotland had arranged at least 48 oil-backed loans in Angola. However, Wikileaks reveals that a new multi-billion Chinese line of credit under negotiation in 2009 (and since concluded) was not intended to be backed by oil. Securing credit with Angola’s oil reserves was reportedly seen as “too humiliating” for the Angolans.
This revealing quotation speaks volumes about Chinese – and African – attitudes about commodity-backed-credits. They’re purely for situations where countries are not credit-worthy. That covers a lot of Africa, where dozens of governments have only recently had their World Bank and IMF debts canceled or reduced under the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Country initiative), and are currently operating under debt sustainability restrictions monitored by the international financial institutions.
Third, Africans are uneasy about US-China trilateral cooperation in Africa.
While the cables have mentioned some African concerns with China’s actions, such as the high incidence of Chinese poaching in Kenya, or the use of Chinese workers, African speakers tend to praise China’s overall aid strategy. In fact, one of the main concerns voiced by African diplomats in Beijing, such as Ole Sunkuli, Kenya’s Ambassador to China, or South African Minister Plenipotentiary Dave Malcolmson, is that closer US-Chinese cooperation would hamper China’s effectiveness.
Quite sensibly, a cable from the US embassy in Beijing emphasizes that any projects for cooperation should be “African-initiated and led, to get the development cooperation dialogue started on the right foot.” Malcolmson concurred, noting that many African officials were annoyed when the European Union wrote up a policy paper on trilateral cooperation with China in Africa without consulting African partners.
Yet getting African cooperation is clearly easier said than done. The cables stress that this is not primarily because of African interest in avoiding governance conditionalities, something often assumed by Western analysts. Malcolmson noted that China’s emergence “as a counterbalance to U.S. and European donors has been very positive for Africa by creating ‘competition’ and giving African countries options.” The West emphasized governance “a lot more” than infrastructure. Although “governance, peace and security are crucial to African growth,” Malcomson emphasized that “they must be accompanied by measures to reduce poverty and build infrastructure”, areas targeted by Chinese assistance.
Ambassador Sunkuli stated that the West spent too much time and money financing conferences and seminars and that “Africa was better off thanks to China’s practical, bilateral approach to development assistance” and its “focus on infrastructure and tangible projects.
A curious corollary of the release of the Wikileaks cables on China and Africa is how they have been spun in some the media. The bottom line on the Wikileaks cables released so far is this: read between the lines, read beyond the headlines, and compare the cables to each other. Some US Embassies are reporting back to headquarters on surprisingly frank and constructive discussions with their Chinese counterparts in Africa, and their African counterparts in China. If the request to report on Chinese activities was common to all US embassies in Africa, we could be in for a few more surprises.
Deborah Brautigam is Professor of International Development at American University’s School of International Service, and author of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa. Ryan Briggs is a Ph.D. candidate at American University’s School of International Service