7 Dec 2011
Is Africa the object of a new Great Game among natural resource imperialists or does the continent offer opportunities for cooperation between global and local stakeholders? This article presents three different views on natural resource politics in Africa.
Prepared by: ISN staff
Over the last few years there has been considerable handwringing over whether we are entering a new era of resource imperialism. New and foreign-owned “plantations,” for example, are appearing in significant numbers and in far-flung places. The technicians who operate these types of concessions are also, at least in the case of the Chinese, trained militiamen who could quickly assume a paramilitary role if required. If traditional geopolitics continues to play a role in Afghanistan and the Middle East, as we have discussed the last two days, then its resource-based cousin is certainly at play in Africa today. Three articles, ranging from the darkly geopolitical to the geopolitically benign, help clarify this growing phenomenon for us. First, Friedbert Pflüger’s A New Great Game: The EU, China and the era of energy imperialismargues that Africa is potentially the site of a ‘new Great Game’ that will ultimately afflict all resource-rich regions of the international system. Jennifer Giroux’s Africa’s Growing Strategic Relevance , on the other hand, is more skeptical about the actual intensity of geopolitical competition within Africa. Yes, the West may have vested interests in safeguarding its natural resource supplies from competing demands, but there are other, non-resources-based issues that influence its policies towards the continent. Finally, Saferworld’s report on China’s growing role in African peace and security casts a thoroughly pragmatic eye over China’s activities in Africa. In doing so, the Saferworld writers argue that Africa could be the site for increased cooperation between global and local stakeholders alike.
Renewed interest in Africa
Despite the negative portrayals of Africa by its doomsayers, it continues to gain in geopolitical significance for both established and emerging global powers. This inexorable interest in a continent that has perennially played the poor relation in the global economy is underpinned by several important factors. Emerging powers like China and India are continuing their social and economic development at an aggressive pace. In turn, and as previously discussed in an ISN analysis of future forecasting , the developed world needs to sustain relatively high levels of economic growth to meet the welfare demands of ageing populations. Such trends bode ill for energy resources in the decades to come. In its World Energy Outlook 2011, for example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) paints a bleak picture of our energy future. It warned that the world is locking itself into an unsustainable demand for energy which will have far-reaching consequences if there is no collective and sustained effort to alter the current trajectory.
Now, if ever-increasing demand is one part of the problem, then supply issues are the other. A large percentage of the world’s natural resources remain located in the Middle East and Central Asia. However, there are a number of well-advertised problems associated with energy-supplies from these two regions. The Middle East is obviously as politically precarious as it has ever been. Central Asia, Potemkin village appearances to the contrary, also suffers from chronic instability. In its recent report,Central Asia: Decay and Decline, the International Crisis Group (ICG) predicts that collapsing infrastructures could bring down the region’s ‘enfeebled regimes’ and create enormous uncertainty in one of the most fragile parts of the world. In such a volatile context it becomes ever more difficult to guarantee that all-important and steady supply of energy resources on which so many countries depend.
Yet, Africa’s natural resources potentially offer a solution to these geopolitical problems. The continent is estimated to hold ten percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, eight per cent of its gas reserves, and is rich in other resources such as diamonds, uranium, copper, (see map, but please note that the oil and gas percentages do not reflect possible reserves off, for example, the West African coast). Moreover, Africa is rich in ‘rare earth’ resources used in the production of many electronic devices ranging from mobile phones to advanced weapon systems. While these elements are not as rare as their name might suggest, many countries are concerned that China has emerged as the single most important (and almost exclusive) domestic producer and exporter of some of these resources. (The United States, for example, imports over 90 per cent of its rare earths from China.) Since Beijing will increasingly need more of the rare earths it produces for its own purposes, other countries will need to diversify their supply chains to reduce their single-source dependency. Against such a backdrop, it should come as no surprise that there is renewed interest in resource-rich Africa.
Traditionally, the West has been the chief importer of natural resources from Africa. In 2010, for example, almost a quarter of US petroleum imports came from Africa, with Nigeria exporting 980,000 barrels and Angola 400’000 barrels per day. Yet, Beijing’s increasing appetite for natural resources has resulted in China overtaking the United States as the main importer of petroleum from Angola. By 2010, Angola was exporting 788,000 barrels per day to China, more than double the 252,000 barrels it received from Sudan. Accordingly, the West’s and emerging powers’ increasing demand for natural resources has resulted in speculation that a ‘new scramble for Africa’ is underway. But is this argument true? Is this warning legitimate or unfounded?
A New Great Game
Friedbert Pflüger argues in his piece that ‘a new Great Game’ is already in full swing in all resource-rich parts of the world and it features new and emerging players like Brazil, India and Canada – all of whom have joined the scramble for natural resources in the past two decades. However, Pflüger, like others, is particularly concerned about China’s increasing demand for energy. (A consensus argument is that China will need sustained Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth-rates of almost nine percent per year in order to avoid major social unrest.) Given this necessity, Pflüger sees China’s recent expansion into Africa as a predictor of what is yet to come to any place in the world where natural resources are found, especially Central Asia. And indeed, there are reasonable grounds for his assumption. The IEA, for example, predicts that by 2035 China will consume nearly 70 percent more energy than the United States.
Pflüger also contends that China pursues its own interests in Africa without any regard for international agreements. Ricardo Soares de Oliveira agrees: “Chinese oil companies are willing to partner with and shore up some of Africa’s most brutal regimes; show little interest in ‘good governance’, human rights, transparency, or the environment; and provide a discourse that ‘effectively legitimizes human rights abuses and undemocratic processes”. Accordingly, Pflüger predicts that there will sooner or later be serious geopolitical collisions if these recent developments continue. In light of what he calls a “new era of global energy and raw material imperialism,” Pflüger argues that Europe in particular needs to develop a common, comprehensive and assertive energy policy to guarantee its long-term energy security against emerging powers.
No Genuine Geopolitical Confrontation…Yet
If Pfügler’s geopolitical future for Africa is bleak, then Jennifer Giroux’s analysis of Africa’s growing strategic relevance is gray. Giroux argues that warnings of an upcoming Sino-American geopolitical confrontation in Africa seem premature. While she acknowledges that competition among external powers for Africa’s natural resources has indeed intensified, she also shows that Africa’s strategic relevance is not limited to just natural resources. The U.S., for example, remains concerned about the numerous weak states in Africa that do (and might) provide refuge for Islamist terrorist groups. (To begin addressing the problem, Washington set up the U.S. Africa Command in 2007.) But instead of interpreting this added concern as a clear sign of expanding geopolitical conflict, Giroux argues that the results of a vigorous re-engagement by the U.S. and others in Africa remain to be seen.
Like Pflüger, Giroux also confirms that there are several issues that have caused tensions between different internal and external actors in Sub-Saharan Africa. China and the West, for example, employ different approaches to engagement with their African counterparts. As a result, Western initiatives that promote democracy and good governance in Africa are roundly criticized by Beijing. It argues that instead of adopting the patronizing methods of former colonial powers, it prefers to stick to its policy of non-interference abroad. This has arguably been the crucial factor in China’s successful engagement with African leaders who like to get aid packages, loans, massive infrastructure projects and other help from Beijing without any strings attached. After all, Chinese money can be used by African rulers as they see fit – even if this means buying weapons in order to wage a brutal civil war. In return, Beijing mainly gets trade deals and access to the natural resources it desires.
China’s policy towards Sudan exemplifies this approach. It has been Sudan’s most important trade partner and ‘protector’ within the United Nations Security Council and the international community. It has, for example, continued to back the country’s president Omar al Bashir despite the International Criminal Court’s warrant for his arrest, whom it accuses of war crimes during the conflict in Darfur. As Sudan is China’s second most important supplier of oil in Sub-Saharan Africa, its oil fields are fundamental to Beijing’s strategic dialogue with Khartoum. In Western capitals, this has given rise to the concern that China will undermine their engagement in Africa and push them out of the continent. As such, Western policy-makers and civil society regularly criticize China for its material support for many autocratic African regimes.
The potential problem with the above criticisms is not that they are unjustified, but rather that they represent only one side of a complex story. Also, from a Chinese point of view, European criticisms are likely to be perceived as geopolitical rhetoric aimed at stopping China from legitimately doing business with Africa. As many commentators have pointed out, Europe’s own historical record with Africa cannot exactly be called a positive one. What they have thus come to fear is a race to the bottom with regards to upholding human rights and good governance in Africa, especially if other external powers such as the U.S. and Europe were to decide to trade conditionality for access in order to compete with China.
Towards A More Co-Operative Approach to African Peace and Security?
The tensions between Western and Chinese approaches to engaging with African governments have been well documented, but whilst this has mainly been interpreted as a predictor of future conflict, it has also been argued that China’s complex relations with Africa may also result in a brighter future for the continent. Yes, China has exported huge amounts of small arms and light weapons to Africa, many of which have been used in ethnic conflicts that have occurred across the Great Lakes region. Yes, a recent British newspaper article accused the Chinese military of transferring arms to Zimbabwean security services in direct barter for diamonds. And yes, Beijing’s commitment to a policy of non-interference in Africa can be seen as ‘ethically challenged.’ Despite these negatives, however, China has a vested interest in the resolution of local conflicts where natural resources are often fiercely contested between warring parties. China’s leaders are, for instance, concerned about tensions between North and South Sudan , which re-emerged after Juba’s recent secession from Khartoum. (Much of Sudan’s oil is located in the border region between the North and the South.) Saferworld also reports that several Chinese scholars argue that, in recent years, China has become more flexible in its interpretation of non-interference and is willing to take a more active diplomatic role in the resolution of conflicts. (It has, for example, deployed peacekeepers, to Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia and a number of other conflict zones in Africa.) While this overall development is welcomed in many quarters, Saferworld ultimately cautions that China’s bilateral influence should not be overemphasized: it cannot magically solve conflicts alone.
Saferworld’s report – as critical as it is towards many Chinese policies in Africa – suggests that there are signs that Beijing may be forced (if not prepared) to take a more active and responsible role with regard to its engagement with African countries. So, it seems that both China and the West share a common interest in promoting peace, security and development throughout Africa. Saferworld also contends that at such a critical juncture in Africa’s history, the management of the relations between all external and internal actors will greatly determine future prospects for the continent’s peace and development. Put another way, Saferworld’s report argues that everyone involved here can choose cooperation over an escalation of geopolitical conflict, if they want to.
Despite apparent differences of opinion regarding the prospect of Africa becoming the theater for a ‘new Great Game’, the articles under consideration today nevertheless have a lot in a common. There is an acknowledgement, for example, that geopolitical competition on the African continent has increased. And underpinning this competition is the desire to obtain and safeguard access to Africa’s natural resources. The authors also appear to acknowledge that “geographical causation” is a major driver of foreign powers’ strategic calculations regarding Africa. China does not make a secret of the fact that it is interested in improving trade relations to meet its demand for natural resources. Likewise, most Western governments do not engage with Africa simply because they want to promote human rights and good governance. Instead, the West promotes these standards because they also share the same cluster of geopolitical interests in Africa as China.