China in Africa

Tom Ricks used to cover the Pentagon for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He wrote terrific books about the Marines and the war in Iraq. Now among other gigs, he is a blogger for Foreign Policy. It’s great when top-notch reporters write for blogs, even when they are overly enthusiastic about counterinsurgency warfare. That is an issue we will take up with Ricks when he visits Cato on March 13 for a forum on military reform.

I have a smaller bone to pick now. Ricks, like many Pentagon types, is worried about Chinese activities in Africa. He links to a story about a bridge-building project in Mali and suggests that the Chinese are doing something clever that we will someday realize has harmed us.

I hear variants of this all the time — China is doing stuff in Africa, so we must imitate them. It doesn’t make sense. Even if you think the United States has a zero-sum relationship with China where their gain is our loss (I don’t), you should worry about something else. There is little that China can do in Africa to make it stronger or to damage U.S. interests.

There are basically three things Americans worry about China doing in Africa: gaining influence from aid and diplomacy that it will use against us, gaining wealth from investments that it will use against us, or somehow screwing up our access to oil.

On the first concern, you have to ask what influence in Africa gets you, other than a happy feeling. Traditionally, as in World War II or the start of the Cold War, we worried about hostile states gaining industrial might by conquest that they could harness against us in a war. Whether or not that was a valid concern is open to academic debate, but there was never much reason to worry about Soviet efforts to buy support in poor countries during the Cold War. There was little to gain there in a geopolitical sense, outside of raw materials rare enough that they might be blocked from the market in a war. It makes even less sense to worry about China gaining influence in Africa now. If Mali likes China because it builds bridges there, so what? We are not poorer or less safe for it.

What about investments? Chinese investments in Mali are more useful to Mali and China than government aid, assuming the investments are sensible ones. If they are wise investments, however, U.S. companies won’t be far behind, and our national income will rise as a result. If they are not economically sensible, they will not enhance Chinese power, and we should not imitate them.

The biggest worry is that China is locking up energy supply in Africa. This concern is born of a failure to understand that oil is a global commodity. If the Chinese tap more of it, American consumers pay less too. If they own production facilities, that matters not at all if the oil is going to market. If the Chinese have a mercantilist energy policy, that is their problem. For more on energy alarmism, see here, here and here.

There is nothing sinister or clever about Chinese activity in Africa. Americans shouldn’t worry about it.

While we’re talking about Foreign Policy bloggers and developing countries, be sure to check Stephen Walt’s attack on his employers’ vacuous cover story: “The Axis of Upheaval.” Great stuff.