Selling arms to African countries helps China cement relationships with African leaders and helps offset the costs of buying oil from them. China doesn't have the same human rights concerns as the United States and European countries, experts say, so it will sell military hardware and weapons to nearly anyone. Indeed, Beijing sees Africa as a growth market for its military hardware. China's active exploration of oil sources in Africa also leads to a need to ensure security around them, experts say, which has led Beijing to send Chinese military trainers to help their African counterparts. In return, China gains important African allies in the United Nations—including Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria—for its political goals, including preventing Taiwanese independence and diverting attention from its own human rights record. A report, "China's Arms Sales: Motivations and Implications" by Daniel Byman and Roger Cliff for the RAND Corporation, says China's government exerts strong central control over its arms exports and uses them as a foreign policy tool.
Between 1955 and 1977, Le Monde reports, China sold $142 million worth of military equipment to Africa, and the pace of sales has picked up significantly since then. The Congressional Research Service reports China's arms sales to Africa made up 10 percent of all conventional arms transfers to the continent between 1996 and 2003. They include:
Sudan. China has sold the Islamic government in Khartoum weapons and $100 million worth of Shenyang fighter planes, including twelve supersonic F-7 jets, according to the aerospace industry journal Aviation Week and Space Technology. Experts say any military air presence exercised by the government—including the helicopter gunships reportedly used to terrorize civilians in Darfur—comes from China.
Equatorial Guinea. China has provided military training and Chinese specialists in heavy military equipment to the leaders of the tiny West African nation, whose oil reserves per capita approach and may exceed those of Saudi Arabia.
Ethiopia and Eritrea. China sold Ethiopia and its neighbor, Eritrea, an estimated $1 billion worth of weapons before and during their border war from 1998 and 2000.
Burundi. In 1995, a Chinese ship carrying 152 tons of ammunition and light weapons meant for the army of Burundi was refused permission to dock in Tanzania.
Tanzania. According to the Overseas Development Institute, China has delivered at least thirteen covert shipments of weapons labeled as agricultural equipment to Dar-es-Salaam.
Zimbabwe. The autocratic government of Robert Mugabe ordered twelve FC-1 fighter jets and 100 military vehicles from China in late 2004 in a deal worth $200 million, experts say. In May 2000, China reportedly swapped a shipment of small arms for eight tons of Zimbabwean elephant ivory, Taylor writes in his report. In addition, the U.S.-backed International Broadcast Bureau says China provided a radio jamming device to Zimbabwe that allows Mugabe's regime to block broadcasts of independent news sources like Radio Africa from a military base outside Harare. China also donated the blue tiles that decorate the roof of Mugabe's house.
It is officially termed "non-interference in domestic affairs." Chinese leaders say human rights are relative, and each country should be allowed their own definition of them and timetable for reaching them. "Let's not forget, this is an authoritarian state itself," Kang says. Economy says the Chinese perspective is that, unlike the United States, they don't mix business with politics. In fact, China has argued that attempts by foreign nations to discuss democracy and human rights violate the rights of a sovereign country. Some experts say China's approach is not significantly different from how any other country pursues its interests. "The United States is highly selective about who we're moral about," Kang says. "We support Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia—huge human-rights violators—because we have other strategic interests. China's not unique in cutting deals with bad governments and providing them arms."
"China's not unique in cutting deals with bad governments and providing them arms," Kang says.
Economy says many Africans are concerned over how China operates in Africa, accusing Chinese companies of underbidding local firms and not hiring Africans. International observers say the way China does business—particularly its willingness to pay bribes and attach no conditions to aid money—undermines local efforts to increase transparency and good governance and international efforts at macroeconomic reform by institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
On the other hand, Africa registered 5.2 percent economic growth in 2005, its highest level ever, in part because of Chinese investment. African nations are enthusiastic that Chinese demand has pushed up oil prices, says Princeton Lyman, adjunct senior fellow for Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The roads, bridges, and dams built by Chinese firms are low cost, good quality, and completed in a fraction of the time such projects usually take in Africa, experts say. The UN-supervised China-Africa Business Council, based in China, encourages much-needed trade and development with the continent. In 2004, China contributed 1,500 peacekeepers to UN missions across Africa, including Liberia. It has undertaken or contributed to construction projects in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia, in addition to the countries named above. It has cancelled $10 billion in bilateral debt from African countries, sends doctors to treat Africans across the continent, and hosts thousands of African workers and students in Chinese universities and training centers. Critics say these projects are meant to build goodwill for later investment opportunities or stockpile international support for contentious political issues. Lyman says China's interest in Africa has both positive and negative effects. "It's good for the continent because it brings in a new actor who's willing to invest, but it's bad for Africa if it turns countries away from the hard work of political and economic reform," he says.
experts say, China's involvement could
likely jump-start change on the continent.
"This is Africa's internal problem," Kang
says. "How do you build infrastructure
without outside investment? And how do you
have a stable government with no resources?"
The roads and schools built by Chinese
companies didn't exist before, so their
presence is an improvement. And the
infrastructure improvements help African
countries secure other loans and investment
opportunities, contributing to an atmosphere
of development that may one day change the
continent -- a welcome, even if unintended,
result of China's quest to secure global
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