TO SOME alarm in America and Europe, the Chinese have launched a significant offensive to win resources, markets, and, yes, hearts in Africa.
The centerpiece of the new Chinese initiative was an elaborate, costly summit in Beijing last weekend. It attracted a large percentage of African heads of state, and Beijing was elaborately decked out for the affair.
More to the point, President Hu Jintao promised to double Chinese aid to Africa, to make available $5 billion in new credits and loans, and to train 15,000 African professionals.
For China, Africa offers just what it needs: resources and markets. Chinese trade with Africa amounted to $40 billion last year and is headed toward $50 billion this year. As many as 2,000 new deals are said to have been signed at the summit.
China wants to exploit the African market of upwards of a billion people. In some ways it is a perfect fit, just as with the United States, where low-cost Chinese exports compete with high-cost local products. China also wants access to Africa's natural resources.
Chief among these is oil. Africa has more than a dozen oil-producing countries whose percentage of world production is growing steadily. The continent also is something of a treasure house of copper, cobalt, zinc, manganese, nickel, and coltan, not to mention gold and silver. It has substantial timber resources and hydroelectric energy capacity which, if developed, can fuel Chinese companies' production in Africa.
Now, why China and not Europe and America?
European countries have operated traditionally in Africa in opposition to each other - especially the British against the French - so it is difficult for Europe to mount a coordinated counteroffensive to the Chinese thrust.
The Europeans continue also to operate under the cloud of their colonialist past, which the Africans have by no means forgotten.
The French continue to meddle in some of their former colonies through the presence of French armed forces. It is always done in the name of stabilization, but at the same time, some of their troops serve to keep unsavory dictators, such as Gabon's President Omar Bongo, in power.
America's role in Africa remains as flaccid now as it has been throughout most of the period of African independence, starting roughly in 1960. The United States got a good start in Africa when President John F. Kennedy decided that Africa was important to America, in no small part because of our country's vibrant African-American heritage.
But this period in Africa also was influenced by the global Cold War, when the United States was competing for influence with the Soviet Union and, later, with the People's Republic of China. After Mr. Kennedy, it was straight downhill for American interests in Africa. Africa has ranked dead last since then in terms of U.S. regional interests, behind Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and, since 2001, even South Asia. America's foreign policy types know this.
Unfortunately for us, so do the Africans.
The United States over the years fell behind other countries in addressing a series of African issues, including decolonization of the Portuguese territories - Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau - because of Portugal's membership in NATO. It lagged in addressing the racist government of Southern Rhodesia because of concern over access to cobalt, and it held onto close relations with apartheid South Africa long after the handwriting was on the wall there.
In recent years, the U.S. response to humanitarian and political crises in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Zaire, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia, and now Sudan has been tardy and hesitant, reflecting the low level of interest in Africa among succeeding administrations in Washington, as well as among Americans in general.
China has been trading with Africa for centuries, long before the economic surge powering its current offensive. In the early days of African independence, Chinese involvement in Africa was low-cost and sporadic, prompted partly by the Chinese-Soviet rivalry.
The Chinese have always made the Africans a little nervous, with their frenetic work ethic and somewhat hard-edged commercial orientation. But China has learned a lot over the years in Africa since independence.
Two elements give it the advantage over America. The first is that, unlike American businessmen, who are generally risk-averse and spoiled in terms of the personal lifestyle they expect, the Chinese take economic risks for the prospect of gain, and their people will go and live anywhere. American companies have always had a devil of a time finding people to work in Africa.
The second, perhaps even more important advantage that the Chinese have over Americans and, to a degree, even Europeans in Africa, is that the Chinese do not attach a big bundle of non-business conditions to their aid and trade.
The Americans are affected by their political views of an African country - is it democratic, does it respect the human rights of its citizens, is there corruption? The current American administration is also concerned about religious orientation. Are Islamist elements active there? Are Christian missionaries free to proselytize?
The Chinese come. They couldn't care less about a country's state of democracy or human rights. I can still remember the look on the face of the Chinese ambassador in Kinshasa, in what was then Zaire, when I asked him if China was prepared to put pressure on the regime of then-President Mobutu Sese Seko to proceed with elections. He was polite, because I was the American ambassador, but he clearly thought I had a screw loose.
So China will do well in Africa, in competition with the United States, particularly for the oil resources controlled by some of Africa's scruffier governments - in Angola, Sudan, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Nigeria, and the like.
American companies will still win out in some cases because of superior technology, but, in general, the United States pays the price for the way it is, for better or for worse.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.