A casual visitor to Angola might be tempted to conclude the country has been taken over by China . Barely a street in the capital does not boast a team of Chinese engineers hard at work repairing its rundown infrastructure.
In the second city of Huambo, Prof Henrique Mendes the city’s head of planning requires nearly a minute to list China’s commitments ranging from building hospitals, schools, stadiums and a polytechnic to renovating the water system.
The road east of Luanda provides a yet starker sign of the apparent dominance: not only is its Chinese-laid asphalt the first decent road surface into the interior in decades, but it is lined by fortress-like compounds containing workers from Chinese state companies.
Drawing on such perceptions analysts often cite Angola to support the theory that China has a neocolonial relationship with Africa, with Beijing as the bossy patron, uplifting impoverished clients, in return for guaranteed raw materials and influence.
Until recently the two governments did little to counter that impression. Since 2004 China has provided credit lines worth between $6bn and $11bn and shipped in tens of thousands of workers. It is also buying ever more Angolan oil. It imported $9bn worth last year up from $5.6bn in 2005, making Angola its largest source of oil.
But in the last few months increasingly diplomats and analysts have started to reassess the relationship and to conclude it may be more balanced and even less harmonious than the slick colonial theory.
Not only are Chinese companies finding it harder to work in Angola than they anticipated, but also Luanda is making clear it does not want to be the puppet of Beijing. The cancellation earlier this year of a contract with Sinopec, the Chinese state-owned oil company, to build an oil refinery in the port of Lobito, a $3bn project, was widely seen as a sign of Angola wanting to assert itself, even though there is also speculation that China was quite happy that the deal fell through.
“Everyone is going ballistic about China’s growing footprint in Angola,” said Lucy Corkin, an analyst at South Africa’s Project for China Studies who has done three research trips to Angola assessing the relationship.
“Not enough credit is given to Angola for managing its own affairs. They are aware of the danger of putting their eggs in one basket and want to get the most they can out of China without relying too much on one economic partner.”
Cushioned by their fabulous oil resources – production is to increase to 1.7 m barrels a day next month – Angolan officials argue they have found their own “Third Way” as some diplomats put it, in dealing with the world, and are keen to work with the West and China while being beholden to neither.
They like to depict their relationship with China not as supplicatory but rather as strategic. Stung by the reluctance of the traditional donor nations and the International Monetary Fund to reach a financing agreement because of concerns over corruption, they say they saw China as an obvious alternative.
“We tried a big diplomatic initiative after the war ended [in 2002],” said Dr Mendes. “But donors did not come. So we looked for other solutions”.
“But we take care to remind the Chinese that we are not spending donor money, but that we are the donors, so we should have the final word.”
The Angolan government keeps a tight lid on details of the relationship to the fury of its critics who suspect some of the funds go astray. President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power since 1979, directly controls the disbursement of the loans through a specially created Office for National Reconstruction, headed by a close ally, General Vieira Dias Kopelipa.
There have, however, been hints of tension. In late 2004 the Finance Minister was sent to Beijing to reassure China about the use of the loans after a number of Angolan senior officials were accused of siphoning off Chinese money. It was noted that China’s President Hu Jintao did not visit Angola on his eight-nation tour of Africa in January.
Angolan businessmen complain that outside the oil sector Chinese investment is minimal, that Chinese companies have not been forming partnerships with Angolans as was hoped, and have not honoured the agreement that Angolans should have 30 percent of contracts linked to the credit lines.
The Chinese too have their gripes. “The market here is hot, but you have to be patient,” said Wu Jiao the project manager of Sinomach, a state industrial design company. “It’s a long term process. I have heard of some companies that have looked around and said it’s too difficult.
“We need to get used to local culture and standards. This country follows different standards. Mostly they are lower.”
A number of projects have faced repeated delays. Asked about working in Angola, Jing Song, an engineer who has overseen the building of a basketball stadium in just four months in time for this month’s African Basketball Championship, shakes his head.
“No one can finish work as quickly as we can, but there are too many difficulties. All my materials must come 400km from Lobito. The road is often destroyed by the rain. My first shipment took a week.”
“And language is a big problem. My [Angolan] supervisors don’t speak English. I don’t speak Portuguese that well and my Chinese workers don’t speak it at all.”
The delays have infuriated the ruling MPLA which is believed to be postponing holding the country’s first elections since 1992 until it can go to the polls hailing a new rail and road network. There is even speculation that this led to the decision to annul the refinery deal.
For Angola, with its huge oil wealth, it is far easier to push back against Beijing than for most other poorer African countries. Hitherto only South Africa, the regional powerhouse, has publically dared to suggest that Beijing should rethink the nature of its engagement with Africa.
“Angolans take great pains not to play favourites,” said one western diplomat. “If there is too much positive press for China one week, without doubt you will see them slammed the next.”
This is the second part of an FT series on the Angolan oil boom.
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