As Muammar Gaddafi’s regime began to unravel in 2011, amid chaotic fighting between Libya’s military and rebels, foreign nations rushed to withdraw their citizens. The rescued included about 35,000 Chinese workers in an evacuation supported by a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy frigate, the Xu Zhou, Beijing’s first military deployment to Africa.
And when Libya’s revolution spilled over to Mali, Beijing sent a PLA unit to join United Nations peacekeepers, the first appearance of Chinese troops on the continent.
More recently, Beijing has committed an 850-strong infantry battalion to South Sudan.
China has a vested interest: protecting South Sudan’s huge oil reserves. Beijing needs energy for its economic growth and wants to safeguard Chinese workers, along with billions of dollars in investments.
Indeed, most Chinese UN deployments – mainly doctors and engineers – have been to Africa, to Liberia, Ivory Coast, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Western Sahara.
There have also been arms shipments, most notoriously in 2008 when a Chinese vessel carrying military equipment to Zimbabwe was denied entry to a South African port amid criticism Beijing’s hunger for raw materials trumped human rights. But Beijing prefers soft power, building railways, roads, ports, telecommunications and other infrastructure in quid pro quo deals for raw materials.
Trade, facilitated by Beijing’s deep public pockets, reciprocal visits by dignitaries, including Xi Jinping, and the estimated one million Chinese citizens who have made Africa home since 2001, soared to $200 billion last year, making China the continent’s biggest trading partner.
All of which has set off alarm bells in some Western quarters, with dark warnings about a new Scramble for Africa. Critics fret the United States – focused on the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, the European Union and Russia – has made a strategic mistake.
They worry that Beijing has exploited a US foreign policy vacuum, grabbing pole position on a dynamic continent the Economist predicts will host seven out of 10 of the world’s fastest growing economies this decade.
This month the Obama Administration signalled it was belatedly taking a greater interest in Africa – the world’s second-largest and second most-populous continent – by convening the first US-African Leaders Summit in Washington, a three-day talkfest that drew 48 African leaders.
“I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world
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