African Voices, Global Choices: Impact on Human Rights
The New England School of Law
March 15, 2008
China's Relations with Zimbabwe, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
by Amb. David H. Shinn
Elliott School of International Affairs
The George Washington University
The organizers of this event asked me to address the relationship between China and three countries in Africa—Zimbabwe, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—that face serious human rights challenges. The recently released 2007 State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices highlighted all three countries for criticism. The State Department described the situation in Zimbabwe during 2007 "as the worst year yet for human rights defenders," adding that "the assault against human rights and democracy by the government significantly increased." It said "Sudan's human rights record remained horrific" and pointed out that in spite of the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement in 2006, "violence increased in 2007, and the region sank further into chaos" as a result of actions by the Sudan government and rebel groups. Although the State Department praised the historic 2006 elections in the DRC and the end of the destructive civil war, it concluded that "the government's human rights record remained poor in 2007."
China's close ties with then liberation leader and now President Robert Mugabe date back to Chinese assistance for the Zimbabwe African National Union during its struggle for power. China's support for Mugabe waned in the early 1980s as China sought strong economic partners in Africa. Mugabe showed little interest in this policy and began to turn to the West for support. The situation changed after Tiananmen Square in 1989 when China actively sought African support for its position on human rights issues in international fora. Mugabe obliged China by defending its actions in Tiananmen Square.
Zimbabwe subsequently developed a "Look East" policy, which included closer ties with Indonesia, India, Iran, Malaysia, North Korea, and especially China. China-Zimbabwe relations expanded politically, economically, and militarily. In 2005 Zimbabwe engaged in a controversial policy of slum demolition around Harare and Bulawayo that eventually left some 700,000 persons homeless. China publicly endorsed the action and, together with Russia, opposed any discussion of the subject in the UN Security Council on the grounds it would amount to meddling in Zimbabwe's internal affairs. Although mutual support on human rights issues where China and Zimbabwe are under fire is not the principal reason for close ties, it is a significant factor.
China's policy of no strings attached to its aid fits neatly into Mugabe's concept of a desirable foreign partner. After the West ended military sales to Zimbabwe, Mugabe turned increasingly to China as a source of equipment. Since 2005, for example, Zimbabwe ordered twelve K-8 advanced jet trainers from China valued at $240 million.
China is now Zimbabwe's largest export market for tobacco and China is becoming more active in mining ventures in Zimbabwe. Total trade in 2007 between China and Zimbabwe was only about $500 million, which is actually much smaller than China's trade with Africa's major oil and mineral exporting countries. Chinese investment in Zimbabwe is modest—about $50 million. In 2007 Sinosteel bought a stake in the holding company for Zimbabwe's largest ferrochrome producer. China is now expressing interest in gold and platinum mining in Zimbabwe. China also opened a Confucius Institute in 2007 at the University of Zimbabwe.
There are limits, however, to what both countries get out of this relationship. Mugabe visited China hat in hand in 2005 after his slum demolition project. He reportedly only received $6 million in aid. Since 1991 the Chinese foreign minister has made his first overseas visit to Africa each year, stopping so far in eighty-seven countries, some on multiple occasions. Only one of these visits took the foreign minister to Zimbabwe. Chinese influence in Zimbabwe is also playing much less well with civil society groups and labor unions than it is with the government.
China is becoming increasingly concerned about the economic situation in Zimbabwe. Harare has defaulted on Chinese loans. Beijing did not publicly support a government crackdown on the political opposition in 2007. China even informed the British late in 2007 that it would reduce its development aid to Zimbabwe. Mugabe has asked China for a $50 billion loan to fix Zimbabwe's shattered economy. I hope Mugabe is not making daily trips to the mail box. China and Zimbabwe did sign in February 2008 a $42 million loan facility to implement the second phase of Zimbabwe's farm mechanization program. This is a relationship where China is clearly watching Zimbabwe's failing economy, the upcoming election, and is more than aware of the fact that Mugabe is eighty-four years old.
China has had generally good relations with Sudan since 1959. Like Zimbabwe, Sudan has developed a policy in recent years of looking East where the major players are India, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, and especially China. It was not until the 1990s, however, that trade became an important factor, primarily because of Sudan's ability to export oil. China began selling Sudan military equipment early in the relationship. Chinese military sales and assistance to Sudan increased after 2002 and just before the outbreak of conflict in Darfur.
Sudan's Islamist government led by Omar al-Bashir came to power in 1989 just after Tiananmen Square. Bashir visited Beijing the following year. Politically isolated and economically strapped, Khartoum turned to China for help in developing the oil sector. Given China's own difficult situation after Tiananmen Square, it found a willing partner in Sudan. Together with a Canadian company (later replaced by the Indian state oil company) and the Malaysian state oil company, China developed Sudan's oil industry. Today, China is Sudan's most important economic partner and, arguably, its most significant political partner. After Angola and South Africa, Sudan is China's third largest African trading partner. China's trade with Sudan amounts to 8 percent of its total trade with Africa. But this trade constitutes only about one-quarter of one percent of China's global trade. As a percentage of global Chinese oil imports, Sudanese oil has actually declined in importance. Sudan provided over 9 percent of China's imported crude in 2002; it fell to 6 percent in 2007, although there are fluctuations in annual percentages. China is taking about 40 percent of Sudan's oil production.
Sudan is one of the most important locations for Chinese investment in Africa. It totals about $6 billion, mostly in the oil sector. Chinese companies have a major role in construction of the $1.5 billion Merowe Dam and the Kajbar Dam, both on the Nile River. Chinese companies are also building roads, bridges, and highways throughout Sudan.
China consistently abstained on UN Security Council resolutions concerning Darfur but supported resolutions related to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and the creation of the UN Mission in Sudan in support of the North-South peace process. In fact, China fully backs the CPA and now has 143 peacekeepers assigned to the UN force in southern Sudan. It is also trying to hedge its bets by improving relations with the South. Salva Kiir led a Sudan People's Liberation Front (SPLM) delegation to China in 2005; he returned as Sudan's first vice president in 2007. China is preparing to fund a series of development projects in southern Sudan, including hydroelectric, roads, housing, stadiums, and cultural centers.
Although China continues to oppose sanctions against Sudan and the extradition of suspected Darfur war criminals to the International Criminal Court, there has been an evolutionary change in China's willingness to put pressure on Sudan in an effort to end the violence in Darfur. Pressure from the West and concern about holding an issue free Olympic Games have clearly had an effect on Chinese policy towards Darfur. The Chinese position on Darfur began to change quietly in late 2006.
Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Sudan in February 2007 and subsequently named a special envoy for Darfur, Liu Guijin. China began talking about the need for a comprehensive ceasefire and acceleration of the negotiation process. By mid-2007, China supported formation of the hybrid African Union/United Nations peacekeeping operation in Darfur and is now sending 315 military engineers to support the operation. China's special envoy for Darfur, Liu Guijin, warned Sudan in January 2008 that "the world is running out of patience over what's going on in Darfur." In February, Liu Guijin called on Sudan to do more to allow foreign peacekeepers to deploy in Darfur. In March, he said there is no fundamental difference with Western countries over Darfur and China is ready to work with Western powers. Liu Guijin added, however, that China opposes "the arbitrary use of sanctions and an embargo that only worsens the situation." At the same time, he called on the West to use its influence over rebel groups to speak with one voice and return to the negotiating table. Liu Guijin recently called Darfur "a humanitarian disaster" and acknowledged that Sudan's government had primary responsibility for stopping the killing.
The issue of arms sales to Sudan is a confusing one. A Chinese government spokesperson recently stated that in 2006 China provided only about 8 percent of Sudan's weapon's imports. Sudan's Minister of Defense added that China "is not the main source for arming the army." On the other hand, UN Comtrade data show that during 2004, 2005, and 2006, China sold Sudan about 90 percent of its imported small arms. Human Rights First issued in March 2008 a carefully documented report on China's arms trade with Sudan. Entitled Investing in Tragedy: China's Money, Arms, and Politics in Sudan, it identified significant sales of Chinese military aircraft and heavy weapons to Sudan.
It is true that Russia, Belarus, Iran and others also provide a very large quantity of arms to Sudan. In fact, Human Rights First acknowledged that Russia has historically been Sudan's largest provider of major weapons systems. Nevertheless, a Sudan independence day military parade in 2007 displayed a considerable quantity of Chinese military equipment. Three Chinese K-8 trainers and three MiG-29s also flew over the capital. It is possible that the Chinese assertion that it provided only 8 percent of Sudan's weapons imports in 2006 is accurate. If measured by dollar value and if 2006 was a year when China supplied few major weapons systems while Russia and others experienced major sales, it might have been a minor percentage year for China.
The China-Sudan relationship continues to be the one to watch in Sudan. Darfur poses a real challenge for Chinese diplomacy, although Beijing will feel less pressure following conclusion of the Beijing Olympics. A return to conflict between southern and northern Sudan would also test China's ability to maintain its interests in Sudan.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
China has a long involvement in the Congo going back to recognition of the radical Antoine Gizenga government in 1961 in the eastern Congo. It continued to back the losing side in the Congo throughout the 1960s but normalized relations with the government in 1972 and eventually established important military ties with the Mobutu government and its successors. For example, China trained eighty-nine military officers from the DRC between 1998 and 2003.
President Joseph Kabila visited Beijing in 2005 when China promised to invest in the DRC and engage in its economic reconstruction. China took an active interest in cobalt and copper mining activities in the DRC, especially in Katanga. Experts estimate that about 30 percent of China's cobalt imports come from the DRC. China recently began timber operations in the country. Increasingly, China is engaging in agricultural projects, including coffee, sugar, and fruit.
Chinese companies began several years ago to build roads, stadiums, government buildings, and hydropower projects. The Chinese also equipped the state radio and television compound and established a mobile phone network. The most dramatic deal occurred in late 2007 when China said its companies would build $9 billion worth of major infrastructure projects in the DRC to be paid for with Congo's cobalt and copper reserves. Chinese companies will build high-voltage power lines and power plants, expand the water system, rebuild the health system, construct four large universities, and numerous housing projects. China will also renovate the railway system and build 250 kilometers of roads.
Congolese and Chinese state owned companies established a joint mining venture, Societe Congolaise Miniere, which will invest $3 billion in new mining areas with the profits used to repay the mining investments and the $9 billion in infrastructure projects implemented by Chinese companies. The deal has been described as a lifeline for President Kabila's dysfunctional government and could result in his dependence on the Chinese. It is a setback particularly for European commercial interests in the DRC. The International Monetary Fund warned the DRC abut the potential negative implications of such a large loan on imports, exports, and the exchange rate.
China has for years assigned troops to the UN peacekeeping operation in the Congo; it currently has 234 military personnel in place. While the Chinese foreign minister visited Zimbabwe only once since his annual African tour began in 1991, he made three visits to the DRC. The DRC is becoming a major partner for China in Africa; minerals have a lot to do with China's interest.
All three countries are important to China's strategy in Africa, especially ensuring access to oil and natural resources. China's long connection with the Mugabe government in Zimbabwe and the fact that the West turned against Mugabe, made it easy for China to solidify its ties. Mutual support on human rights challenges from the West provided additional reason to enhance the relationship. Declared a pariah by many Western countries, Sudan saw an opportunity to invite China to develop its oil reserves without having to worry about Chinese criticism of its human rights policies. Unlike Zimbabwe and Sudan, the DRC does not at this point pose a special human rights problem for Beijing. As China becomes a more important participant in the DRC economy, however, China may experience growing criticism on human rights' grounds if the Kabila government moves backwards on its human rights policies.
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