Turns out the leaks that shall not be named by federal employees have produced a document demonstrating that the State Department is, in fact, paying attention to China’s role in Africa. The BBC is carrying the story. Of course, the story also highlights the amusing lack of self-awareness in our own diplomacy. Take the following from Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs:
“China is not in Africa for altruistic reasons,” he says. “China is in Africa primarily for China.”
He adds: “A secondary reason for China’s presence is to secure votes in the United Nations from African countries.”
Well, yes. Of course, why exactly is the US involved? Why has anyone been involved with Africa over the years? To paraphrase The Who, “here comes the new expropriator, same as the old expropriator.”
On the upside, most Africans with whom I interact suffer no illusions about the sudden interest of the Chinese in their continent. Seems a learning curve has set in . . .
Also interesting here is what appears to be a clear rationale for the apparent silence of the US Government on Chinese expansion in Africa – a set of “tripwires” that would trigger a reaction:
Have they signed military base agreements? Are they training armies? Have they developed intelligence operations? Once these areas start developing then the US will start worrying,” he says.
I would think that we would have an interest in the Chinese locking down rights to arable land, minerals, etc., instead of such narrow concerns for military and intelligence operations, as these resources have strategic value. But who am I to question State?*
*this, more or less, summarizes State’s attitude toward AID.
The BBC professes to be shocked (yes, shocked!) by the find of archaeological evidence suggesting Chinese contact in East Africa in the early 1400s. In a previous life I was an archaeologist (still sort of am, actually), and I worked in Africa . . . and it has long been well-known that there was Chinese contact, and certainly extensive global trade, that brought Chinese goods to Africa well before European exploration and colonization began.
Given that, one wonders what the Chinese are doing here, and why people profess to be so interested and excited about it. This strikes me as a pretty routine dig that is fleshing out some details of what we already knew, not a really big deal. However, archaeology is rife with examples of using the past to justify issues in the present, the best example being the case of Great Zimbabwe and the Rhodesian (Rhodesia is modern Zimbabwe) government – the Rhodesians more or less refused to acknowledge that a native African population could have constructed the buildings at these sites, as this construction severely stressed the idea of black inferiority. Here, it seems to me that there is an interesting effort to emphasize a shared Chinese-African past just as the Chinese are extending their interests into Africa.
The past is rarely innocent. Same goes for archaeology.
So the Tianjin climate talks have come to an end with little outward sign of progress, despite protestations to the contrary by UN Climate Chief Christina Figueres (via AFP):
“I would dare say that this week has got us closer to a structured set of decisions that can be agreed in Cancun,” said Figueres, the executive secretary of the U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. “This week, governments had to address together what was doable in Cancun. … They have actually done that.”
In her defense, it is Figueres’ job to be a cheerleader for the process, so she sort of had to say that, evidence be damned. Hey, if nothing else, we got to see China and the US go from passive agressive to openly pissy across the negotiating table, which is always fun. When the Chinese start referring to “a pig looking in a mirror” to describe the US’s inability to discuss its own failure to pass climate legislation, at least it is amusing . . .
But despite the (not-so) diplomatic fireworks and cheerleading the face of evidence, the oddest statement of the week comes from Greenpeace:
Greenpeace international climate policy director Wendel Trio criticized the hard-line stance of the major players in the talks. “Governments should look at what they can do for the climate, not what the process can do for them,” Trio said.
Look, I know that someone has to stand up for the ideal world we all wish we lived in, if only to remind us of what that ideal looks like when we get too far away, this statement is so staggeringly naive as to be unproductive. Of course governments will leverage the process for themselves – it’s what they do in international negotiations. This is reality – begging them to behave like something they are not isn’t going to change anything, and fails to engage with the process as it is in the world – in other words, how things really get done. A real effort to engage would have to address the staggering complexity of the diplomatic process, as well as the real self-interest of countries. I am friends with someone close to the biofuels negotiations that just took place in Rome, and the US Government side of that negotiation alone involved several executive branch agencies or offices, and there were major differences between them that took a lot of smoothing before anyone could go sit at a table in Rome . . . so that means that not only are we dealing with national interests, but within countries we are dealing with bureaucratic interests – which speak to the interests of the constituencies of the various bureaucracies.
I share the general stance of Greenpeace with regard to the need for climate action. However, their energy would be much better spent mobilizing all of the key actors along this legislative/diplomatic supply chain to understand why they care about the climate, and why it is in their interest/the agency’s or offices’ interest/the national interest to take action.
The BBC has a remarkably feel-good story about Angola’s newly-refurbished Luanda-Malange train route. While I love positive stories about Africa in any media – if for no other reason than to offset the over-reporting on conflict and poverty – this story completely misses the important point here. This line was refurbished through Chinese financing . . . despite the fact Angola cannot really pay the bill. The story intimates that China was somehow surprised or dismayed at the non-payment, and held up the opening of the line until they were paid. Really? Anyone who has been paying attention to the growing Chinese presence in sub-Saharan Africa will find this storyline borderline hilarious. The Chinese simply don’t care all that much about getting paid now. Their interest is in the rich agricultural areas around Malange, and securing reliable transportation routes in and out to enable the movement of agricultural goods from this area to future Chinese markets. In other words, they will get theirs later – this is an investment, not a repayable loan. The new scramble for Africa has been on for nearly a decade, but nobody seems to be paying attention except the rank-and-file Africans, who grow more leery of this sort of thing all the time. At what point will the US or another power step in to try to counterbalance the massive growth of Chinese influence in Africa?