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EU seeking partnership with China in Africa

Proposal comes as Chinese presence is eroding Europe’s influence in region

LONDON – THE European Union has announced that it is seeking Chinese cooperation in Africa.

EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel has pledged to present Beijing with an ‘African partnership’ when he visits China in March.

But Mr Michel, a former Belgian foreign minister known for his promotion of human rights, risks running afoul of Europe’s non-governmental organisations, most of which view China as a hindrance in Africa.

And, judging by the initial reactions from Beijing, the Chinese are not impressed by his concept either.

European governments are used to dealing with Africa on their own. After all, the overwhelming majority of African states are former European colonies.

Commercial links remain strong. In 2006 – the last year for which complete figures are available – Europe was still Africa’s top economic partner, accounting for S$425 billion worth of trade.

But the Europeans have watched with incomprehension and subsequent fury as China has made deep inroads into Africa.

The Chinese interest was initially in oil, gas and other raw materials. However, it has evolved into a far broader political and economic engagement that, while transforming the African continent, is also marginalising the Europeans.

According to Chris Alden, the author of a new book on Beijing’s African involvement, the Chinese are attractive to local governments because they finance infrastructure projects at a speed that the Europeans simply cannot match.

‘They have a very light touch when it comes to bureaucracy, while the EU is the master of bureaucracy,’ he points out.

And, while the Europeans anguish over the human rights implications of their investments, ‘China does not suffer from such concerns’, he adds.

Since the start of this decade, China’s trade with the world’s poorest continent has risen from virtually nothing to a total of S$71 billion in 2006. Beijing’s Export-Import Bank recently earmarked another S$30 billion specifically for African investments.

The Europeans are feeling the pinch from all directions. Their companies, which used to mine most of Africa’s raw materials, are now regularly trounced by the Chinese.

And, more importantly, African leaders – who now have China for financial and political support – are rejecting Europe’s traditional lectures about good governance and human rights.

Portugal, itself a former African colonial power, tried to reassert Europe’s voice by holding an Africa-EU summit last December. It was a total fiasco: African leaders refused to sign a new trade agreement which the EU offered, mainly because it imposed a demand to open local markets.

The Europeans have now decided that, if they cannot beat the Chinese, they had better join them. And the EU thinks it has something to offer.

Mr Michel believes that if China does not buy into Europe’s agenda, which concentrates on improving African governance, sooner or later the Chinese will repeat Europe’s old colonial experience: African governments will not repay their loans, and may repudiate their raw materials deals.

So, the EU leader hopes that, by making China an offer of partnership, the two trading blocks could agree on a common African agenda.

Unfortunately for Mr Michel, the Chinese are not interested.

‘We are happy to discuss African questions,’ said Mr Jiang Yu, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry. But, he added, this can only take place by ‘respecting and listening to the opinions of the Africans’.

The EU may well be right in its prediction that China will ultimately be disappointed in Africa.

Yet the Chinese remain determined to find this out for themselves, without Europe’s help.


Source: The Straits Times 15 Jan 08

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