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December 9, 2010 4:23 pm
The default response in Washington to inquiries about China’s burgeoning engagement with Africa tends be a fairly banal insistence that there is more than enough room for all the continent’s suitors.
So the latest instalment of US diplomatic cables posted on the WikiLeaks website – including a large batch from African embassies – provides a refreshingly honest assessment of how Washington really views Beijing’s role on the continent after a decade in which trade between Africa and China has risen more than tenfold.
“The United States does not consider China a military, security or intelligence threat,” says a cable from the consulate in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, following a visit from Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
But the detailed attention of embassies across the continent to Chinese commercial deals, infrastructure projects and cases of corruption speaks of growing friction between the US and its emerging power rival on African soil.
“China is a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals,” adds the cable, purportedly relaying Mr Carson’s views.
The cables describe Nigeria as the most important country on the continent for US interests because of its petroleum resources, large Muslim population and the market it represents as Africa’s most populous nation.
US oil companies are having to contend with tougher competition as China seeks to muscle in on new exploration concessions across west Africa.
But democracy campaigners detect a whiff of hypocrisy in western attacks on Chinese ethics. Chinese officials argue that Beijing’s resources-for-infrastructure deals offer an opportunity for industrialisation never countenanced by western trading partners and European former colonial powers.
Washington would interpret China’s role as more threatening should certain wires be tripped.
The same cable from Lagos says: “Is China developing a blue water navy? Have they signed military base agreements? Are they training armies? Have they developed intelligence operations? Once these areas start developing, then the United States will start worrying.”
The possibility for co-operation between the US and China seems particularly remote on the other side of the continent in Kenya, according to a February note from the embassy in Nairobi that recorded “little dovetailing of our interests to date”.
The embassy reported that China “has been silent on the implementation of the reform agenda which we consider essential to Kenya’s future stability and prosperity”.
The observation appears in line with Beijing’s policy of not interfering, publicly at least, in the political affairs of African nations.
The cable also foresees difficulties for China’s thrust into Africa.
“Given the possibility of a backlash by the Kenyan people against China, perhaps over the issue of imported Chinese labor or mishandling of natural resources, there may be benefits to keeping our distance, at least publicly, from China,” it says.
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