When today's ally is tomorrow's adversary
SCMP April 30 2007
Thirty years on, the worm has turned in the Ogaden. The casualties
suffered by Chinese oil workers in that region of eastern Ethiopia
are a reminder that Chinese are not exempt from the perils of operating
in Africa. It is also a reminder that China's interest in the continent
is not new but will never be more than peripheral and unstable.
Modern China's first major foray into Africa was in 1964 when Zhou
Enlai made a multi-nation tour of the continent. I saw Zhou in Sudan
- one of his stops and now, for different reasons, perhaps China's
most important and most difficult African relationship. China then
was focusing on its political role as a leader of the non-aligned world
days before the Cultural Revolution caused it to shut down most of
its diplomacy. It was also just starting its foreign aid business.
Later that year, I visited the first Chinese exhibition in Dar es
Salaam in Tanzania - one result of the Zhou visit. Another was China's
biggest contribution to African development - the Tanzam railway linking
landlocked Zambia to Tanzania and the sea. It was a political and development
project, designed to free Zambian copper exports from dependence on
outlets through then Portuguese-ruled Angola and Mozambique and white-ruled
Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa.
The irony now is that white rule in Africa is history, but so too
are most of Zambia's once huge copper exports, a victim of mismanagement.
The railway project was a diplomatic coup, but left a legacy that
remains today. China's import of its own workers, and treatment of
local ones not accustomed, even under former white masters, to Chinese
disciplines created many resentments.
China's African forays, more recently, have tended to be successful.
Its oil investments in Sudan are doing well. Another civil war that
had long been raging in the south and other trouble spots meant the
risks in Sudan were always going to be high. But China's success has
been partly offset by diplomatic embarrassments over Darfur. Nor can
there be any certainty that the oil investment will not become the
victim of the local discontent that has dogged Nigeria's oil industry.
Flush with money and prestige, and eager to secure supplies of raw
materials, China's recent forays into Africa are understandable.
But, as events have shown, except for South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa
mostly lacks the security necessary to regard it as a safe source of
supply. Money buys temporary friends, but equally can set off resentments
which are exacerbated by cultural divides. Incidents such as that in
the Ogaden also set off demands in China for 'action' to protect Chinese
nationals. A China Daily editorial claimed 'the government is responsible
for the safety' of Chinese workers and tourists now overseas. How so?
This may be journalistic rhetoric and has scant relevance in Africa.
But it is the kind of rhetoric that could set off alarm bells in Southeast
Asia where many ethnic Chinese are regarded as Chinese nationals, and
where Beijing's influence on overseas Chinese was a source of concern
both when Mao Zedong was exporting revolution and Chiang Kai-shek was
exporting ethnic identity.
This time, China is on the same side as the US, which backed the Ethiopian
intervention in Somalia's civil war. China is now the victim of the
separatist movement of Somalis in Ogaden. The US and China like to
pin Muslim fundamentalist and al-Qaeda labels on the Muslim Somalis,
a move that brings them into the 'war on terror'. But the reality is
that Ethiopian-Somali enmity is at least as old as that between China
A few in China may remember that, 30 years ago, Somalia and Ethiopia
fought a war over the Ogaden which the Somalis endeavoured, unsuccessfully,
to seize from an Ethiopia that had just acquired a Soviet-backed socialist
regime. China backed Somalia.
In much of Africa, one day's friend or client is tomorrow's enemy.
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