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China in Africa: The Real Story

China-Africa Oil Ties: How Different from the US?

Deborah Brautigam

An updated report from the Council on Foreign Relations on China-Africa Oil Ties makes several statements that made it past reviewers (and that reflect conventional wisdom):

Quoting journalist Howard French, the report says that "unlike the West, China 'has declined to tell African governments how they should run their countries, or to make its investments contingent on government reform'."  And quoting Fanie Herman and Tsai Ming-Yen, the report says: "The U.S. focuses on humanitarianism, good governance, and democratization of petroleum-producing states in their oil diplomacy approach," unlike China.

I would have expected better than this in a report coming from the Council on Foreign Relations. Is the US oil diplomacy approach really focused on good governance and democratization in Equatorial Guinea, Angola, or Saudi Arabia? I don't think so. Have Western companies like ExxonMobil, Freeport McMoRan, American Tobacco, etc., made their natural resource investments in Nigeria, Chad, the DRC, or Zimbabwe contingent on governance reform? Again, I don't think so.

The VOA reported on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to Africa, saying:
Clinton kicked off her trip with a speech in Dakar by saying the U.S. will seek out business opportunities but not at the expense of democracy and human rights.  'The United States will stand up for democracy and universal human rights even when it might be easier or more profitable to look the other way, to keep the resources flowing. Not every partner makes that choice, but we do and we will,' she said.
Below is a photo of our president and his first lady smiling with the President of Equatorial Guinea and his first lady. The dictatorial government of Equatorial Guinea is a serial human rights abuser, but it's oil rich, and US companies are the beneficiaries. These are the real choices we're making.

We're more likely to have a solid basis for understanding Chinese engagement in Africa if we in the West stop assuming that we're the good guys, that our oil diplomacy is pure, that our companies wouldn't think of investing in a non-democratic country ... "unlike China".

[updated November 4, 2012]