History repeats itself in strange ways. Towards the end of the 18th century Britain was not much of a power. As late as 1870, Florence Nightingale, the nurse who made history, was to write: ?Bombay at this time is healthier than London, Calcutta though not healthier than London is healthier than Manchester or Liverpool!? But it was in business and was spreading out from as early as the 17th century.
The East India Company came to India to indulge in trade and ended up as rulers. One wonders whether what Britain did in India is currently being repeated by China in Africa in another context. China started with wishing to gain influence in Africa and has so far done a great deal to win it over. It started with supporting African liberation movements in the 1950s and 1960s, helped build railways for the newly independent countries, bringing in Chinese labour in large number to complete the jobs undertaken. It even encouraged African students to study in China and did whatever possible to win African favour. Now, it has opted for trade with Africa on a massive scale.
In a way, it is a reversal of the British or even European role in Asia where Europeans came to trade and set up their factories whether in India, Indonesia or South East Asia, only to end up as rulers. In the present case, the Chinese approach to Africa is the other way round. It went there to seek influence but is now actively engaged in raising trade possibilities. Trade between China and Africa was around $ 3 billion in 1995. By 2005, in just about a decade, that trade has risen to $ 32 billion. By any reckoning this is a steep rise. It is competing with the European Union(EU) and the United States in a determined way. EU-Africa trade is declining but China seems determined to push it further down. Beijing seems to be in a hurry. It has one advantage over the European Union and that is that it can produce goods at a much cheaper price. In this matter no European nation can compete with China and it has been pushing its influence with a determination which is awesome.
Early this year in January, China'sForeign Minister, Li Zhaoxing, ?swept through West Africa? to use a phrase originating in a British journal. Three months, later, in April, President Hu Jintao visited Nigeria, Morocco and Kenya. He was followed in June by Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao who, in turn visited seven other countries in the continent. It has been a kind of ?diplomatic invasion? never before seen. In the first week of November, China hosted more than thirty African leaders for the first-ever Sino-African Summit in Beijing. The Indian media, it would seem, has not taken all these Chinese moves seriously. It had better. Meanwhile, State-owned Chinese companies have also been active.
Around 1991 there were 300 Chinese living in Zambia. Now, according to one guess, there are over 3,000. What are they doing there? Buying and selling, that'swhat. The Chinese are in the civil engineering and construction business. Having done well in Zambia, the Chinese are apparently planning to move to neighbouring Angola and Congo. Primarily, China'seyes are on raw materials available in Africa, just as European eyes in the 17th century onwards were on spices in the East, with a foreign exchange reserve of $ 1 trillion?an unbelievable figure-China is spreading out to buy raw materials to sustain its growing economy, anything from minerals, farm products, and timber to oil and more especially oil. For China, oil is what it needs most to sustain its industrial development.
According to the The Economist (October 28), China alone is responsible for 40 per cent of the global increase in oil demand between 2000 and 2004. Just as the European powers, especially Britain and France and later the United States kept a keen eye on middle eastern oil, China is now coveting African oil to sustain its rapidly growing industry, even while word is going round that it would like to co-opt India in its oil exploration efforts.
CNOOC, a state-owned Chinese company, paid in January $ 2.7 billion to get a minority interest in a Nigerian oilfield. Nigeria, needless to say, is Africa'sbiggest oil-producer. China, similarly, has secured exploration rights in four Nigerian sites. And a Chinese company?obviously state-owned, has become a partner in local firms, exploring oil in several blocks in Angola.
What on earth is India doing? Angola, incidentally, has now overtaken Saudi Arabia as China'sbiggest single supplier of oil. China seems to be spreading its tentacles to other African states such as Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Congo Brazzaville. The last named already sells a third of its annual output to Chinese refiners.
The Economist provides even more fascinating information on China'sinterest in Africa. China, for example has now taken over 70 per cent of Sudan'sexports, compared to 10 per cent a decade ago. In mid-1990s, Burkina Faso hardly sold anything to China. Now it sells a third of its exports to China, mostly cotton. Chinese companies are building bridges, roads and other civic amenities in Angola and as payment is taking oil. Smart deal. With its firm foothold in Africa, China is undercutting scale of European goods, whether it is textiles of plastics or electronic equipment to a point that the developed world is sitting up. It has to, considering that by now China has invested as much as $ 150 million in Sudan alone.
As The Economist put it: ?When American and Canadian oil companies packed their bags there, China quickly stepped in, drilling wells and building pipelines and roads.? In the circumstances, one can well understand the warning put up by The Economist to the effect that what is happening is ?a warning to Africans that this new interloper in their continent is no more altruistic than its predecessors??presumably meaning the French, the Belgians and the British. They, all went to Asia first to trade; then, to protect their trade, they got into politics. And to safeguard their politics, they sought to take over power. The United States is as much guilty of such behaviour in Latin America as elsewhere. Hasn'tChina learn anything from history? Haven'tthe African nations? But then, does it matter? All powerful nations, in their own way, are alike. Politics and amorality go hand in hand. One suspects that they are even compelled to, by time and circumstances.
In the past competition between trading nations often led to war as between France and England or England the Netherlands until each nation carved out its exclusive geographic boundaries to keep others out of bounds. Does one see a repetition of the old game? Is what we are witnessing a re-run of history in a different context? One can only wait and see. Meanwhile China is marching ahead. True, as of now its share of African trade is only around 2.3 per cent of its total trade. But one must begin somewhere, shouldn'tone? And who knows where it will end? Power is always beguiling.