December 17, 2005

Flip-flops and football help China’s Africa drive

By Nick Tattersall

DAKAR (Reuters) - China is winning African hearts and minds
by offering the world's poorest continent everything from cheap
flip-flops to new sports stadiums, but the West is wary of the
Asian giant's methods and motives.

From a 20,000-seater soccer stadium in coup-prone Central
African Republic to a huge parliament building in war-hit Ivory
Coast, China is opening diplomatic doors with
attention-grabbing gifts for the state and cheap goods for the

Even in the fabled Saharan trading towns of Agadez and
Timbuktu, the moped of choice for young men is a Chinese

"We have gained the confidence of African countries," said
Tongqing Wang, political affairs advisor at the new Chinese
embassy in Senegal's capital Dakar.

"We have the same impulses. We understand African countries
well; what they want, what they do," he said as workmen
wrestled a telecoms mast onto the roof of his new office.

Senegal is the latest African country to be wooed by China,
resuming diplomatic ties in October after a 10-year break. In
doing so it ditched links with Taiwan and recognized Beijing's
claim to sovereignty over the island.

The move left Taiwan -- which immediately accused China of
luring Senegal with "threats and inducements" -- with only 25
allies, many of them small Caribbean and Pacific Island

"States have no friends, they have only interests,"
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade wrote in a blunt letter to
Taiwan's Chen Shui-bian, informing him of the decision.

With China seeking a home for its current cash surplus and
Senegal looking for cheap ways to develop its infrastructure,
there were interests on both sides: Sino-Senegalese trade hit
$105 million in the first three quarters of 2005, up by more
than a third on the previous year.


But the rewards for China's diplomatic push go beyond

Chinese oil executives may be winning contracts to hunt for
new reserves, vital to sustain the world's fastest growing
economy, but building diplomatic clout is equally important.

Gaining support on the world stage from one of the few
corners of the globe where the influence of the United States
and of former European colonial powers is on the wane is seen
as a goal worth pursuing by China.

"Beijing seems to be very much aware of the difficulties
which a late-industrializing nation faces in competing with
established players for influences in the world," said Xuewu
Gu, chair of East Asian Politics at Bochum University in

"They believe that China would only have the chance to
establish itself quickly in areas where the positions of other
powers were yet weak," he wrote in a study published earlier
this year.

That worries Western politicians who fear China's cosiness
with corrupt rulers undermines international efforts to promote
good governance: when the West threatens sanctions by curbing
investment, China is all too ready to plug the gap.

"China's propping up of corrupt regimes hinders the United
States' ability to stop rogue states and to help create stable,
prosperous and open societies," said Carolyn Bartholomew of the
U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

"China is willing to provide economic, military and
diplomatic assistance to undemocratic African regimes in direct
opposition to political forces that spent years attempting to
encourage change in these regimes," she told Congress in July.

She cited an order placed by the government of Zimbabwe's
President Robert Mugabe -- shunned as a pariah by much of the
West -- for 12 fighter jets from China in late 2004 at a time
when the country faced economic collapse.


Chinese diplomats and businessmen are quick to point out
that their nation's political interest in Africa is nothing

Beijing supported African revolutionary movements
struggling for independence in the 1960s and 70s, some of whose
leaders have since come to power and are ready to repay the

The entry of the People's Republic of China into the United
Nations in 1971 was supported by many Third World nations who
hoped it would play an active role in the Non-Aligned Movement.

"China never forgets that," said Wang in Dakar.

"The friendship between China and Africa goes back a long
way," he said, adding the heads of state from every African
country which recognizes China -- all but six of them -- would
be invited to a summit in Beijing next year.

Chinese traders living in Africa pride themselves on having
a closer relationship with the man in the street than their
Western counterparts, a friendship they see as born of a common
struggle to earn a decent living in a developing nation.

"The biggest challenge for Beijing has been to open the
door of Africa without repeating the mistakes made by the
'American imperialists' and 'European colonialists'," Bochum's
Gu wrote.

"Arrogance and ... patronizing feelings are at the top of
the list of warnings for government officials and entrepreneurs
involved with sub-Saharan Africa."

It appears to have paid off.

Gaudily colored Chinese flip-flops are ubiquitous in West
Africa, adorning the feet of everyone from Senegal's taxi
drivers to Liberia's rebel fighters, and outselling more
expensive African leather sandals in the region's markets.

"The Chinese and their goods are welcome in Africa," said
Edvige Ettien, shopping in a Chinese grocery store in Abidjan.
"But we still have some problems reading the labels."

(Additional reporting by Peter Murphy in Abidjan)