By Charitha Ratwatte –
Lessons to be learnt
An analyst has commented after reviewing the People’s Republic of China’s recent economic and political incursions into the continent of Africa that “Africa is China’s honey pot. Where else would China find political leaders so easy to buy!?”
China has over the last 10 years carried out a sustained political and investment push into Africa. Visits have been made at the highest political level to several leading African countries; loans, grants and investments have been made in logistics and natural resources; and thousands of Chinese citizens have migrated to work, to carry on business and trade in African countries. There has also been, at the same time, large numbers of Africans visiting China on Chinese Government scholarships to study, as well African traders visiting China to resource products to export to Africa.
One of the justifications for developing the harbour at Hambantota on Lanka’s southern coast was that 80% of the raw materials, crude oil, petroleum products and natural gas that China imports from Africa and the Gulf countries passes Dondra Head, Lanka’s southern-most point, the much-discussed Southern Ocean’s Maritime Silk Route, in huge bulk carrying ships. Whether they will call over at Hambantota Harbour to refuel, re-victual, rest and recreation, etc. or use Mattala International Airport for crew changes, is of course another matter altogether. It certainly has not happened yet.
Doubts have been raised whether the Hambantota Harbour can accommodate those humongous bulk carriers. Defence analysts say that the Hambantota Harbour and Mattala airfield would be vital to locate battleship groups and fighter aircraft, if China at any time feels that this Southern sea lifeline is jeopardised or under threat from, say US Aircraft Carrier Battle Groups based in Diego Garcia or Indian warships based in the Andaman Islands.
Vital links in ‘String of Pearls’ strategy
Security analysts have identified Hambantota Harbour and Mattala airfield as vital links in the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy by China to develop strategic harbours and airfield to locate warships and fighter aircraft, to dominate the Indian Ocean, in Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. One wag wondered aloud whether the Malaysian Airlines plane which vanished could have landed at Mattala!
Chinese foreign aid has got a bad reputation in Sri Lanka after the ‘always breakdown’ Norochcholai Coal Power Plant. There is much hallelujah-ing about an FTA with China. Analysts are concerned that unless the Negative List is comprehensive to cover all Lanka’s import substitution industries, this could be the death knell for them. In a radio talk show recently, when the news that Lanka could not find a hangman was broadcast, one listener had texted in: ‘Why not outsource to China?’
African accusations against China
To return to Africa, accusations against China flow thick and fast. Chinese foremen in factories, farms and mines overwork and abuse their African workmen. Chinese immigrants are guilty of poaching elephants for ivory and killing other protected animals. In Ghana especially, the Chinese are accused of illegal gold mining. Chinese merchants undercut local traders as they flood the market with cheap Chinese goods.
Meanwhile in China, it is estimated that up to 200,000 Africans live in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou alone. Some Chinese call it the ‘Chocolate City’. They are in Guangzhou to buy cheap manufactured goods to export to their countries in Africa. Within Africa itself the Chinese Government is supporting 33 Confucius Institutes teaching Mandarin and Eastern culture at leading African universities. There are estimated to be around 12,000 Africans studying in China funded by the Government of China.
From 2013 to 2015 China plans to bring 30,000 Africans on short-term professional training programs to China and around 18,000 African students to China’s universities. All Chinese-funded construction projects in Africa are being built by Chinese workers, like in Lanka, where there are estimated to be thousands of Chinese construction workers.
Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor recently commented that “Africa must shake off its romantic view of China and accept Beijing as a competitor as much as a partner, capable of the same exploitative practices as the old European colonial powers.” Governor Lamido Sanusi reflects the thinking of a growing number of senior African bureaucrats who fear that Africa’s emerging industries are being drowned in a sea of cheap industrial products from China.
He further said: “Africa is opening itself up to a new form of imperialism, China takes from us primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.” Sanusi goes on: “China is no longer ‘a fellow underdeveloped economy’; China is the second largest economy in the world, an economic giant capable of the same forms of exploitation as the West. China is a major contributor to the de-industrialisation of Africa and thus African underdevelopment.”
Sanusi says that Africa must respond to Chinese predatory trade practices such as currency manipulation and subsidies, which give Chinese exports an advantage. He comments: “The days of the Non Aligned Movement that united emerging nations after colonialism are long gone. Africa must realise that China – like the US, Russia, Britain and Brazil and the rest – is in Africa not for African interests but its own.”
Between Africa’s Sahara desert (in the North) and the Kalahari Desert (in the South) lie many of the raw materials desired by China-based industries. 90% of Chinese imports from Africa are minerals. 30% of Africa’s imports from China are machinery and electrical goods, textiles, chemicals and plastics and rubber. China is Africa’s top business partner, with trade exceeding US$ 166 billion.
In Ghana, a crackdown on Chinese gold miners by Ghanaian authorities and local villages’ hostility has led to the arrest and deportations of Chinese citizens. Governor Sanusi has since been sacked by President Goodluck Jonathan, for going public on millions of dollars stolen through Nigerian illegal crude oil sales, which never reached the Nigerian Treasury. Maybe Governor Sanusi’s independence and outspokenness brought ‘bad luck’ to President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria?! Governor Sanusi has vowed to challenge the legality of his removal in the interest of defending the independence of Nigeria’s Central Bank.
China and Myanmar
Africans, Chinese and Lankans can draw valuable lessons from the interaction in the recent past between China and Myanmar. As long as Burma or Myanmar as it is now known was under as military dictatorship, the dominant neighbour was the People’s Republic of China. Both countries share a long, lawless border.
The day-to-day management of relations with Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s new capital city, was delegated by Beijing to the provincial government, in the neighbouring province of Yunan and the military command located there. China has insisted that all flights between Myanmar and China are required to transit Kunming, the capital of Yunan Province, notwithstanding the fact that there are direct flights from Myanmar’s Yangon (formerly Rangoon, the earlier capital) to other international airports in Seoul, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Ho Chi Mihn City.
China claimed the first call on exploitation of Myanmar’s natural resources, which also created resentment. Villages where the natural resources were located opposed the presence of Chinese managers and workers. The People’s Liberation Army was highly-influential in Chinese investment in Myanmar and deeply-involved in business ventures and enterprises.
There is a word in international relations which describes this phenomenon – Finland-isation, how the former USSR dominated Finland and other small neighbours. Today some analysts talk of Bhutan-isation, how India dominates Bhutan and lords it over smaller South Asian neighbours. However, when Myanmar’s military dictators began to open and liberalise their governance and the economy, by negotiating with oppositionist Aung San Suu Kyi, whom they had earlier placed under house arrest and refused to recognise an election which was won resoundingly by her party, the ruling generals found the overwhelming influence of China stifling.
Over time, Myanmar, which was a virtual isolated client state of the People’s Republic of China, has today, opened up its doors and is the target of investors from all over the world. The domination of Myanmar’s economy by its powerful neighbour China was much resented, during the time of the military dictatorship. But the Burmese generals had no choice.
The Western world turned its back on Myanmar after the military refused to accept the popular mandate given by the voters to Aung San Suu Kyi at the last free and fair election held in the country and imposed economic sanctions, which were crippling. Only neighbours with strategic interests like China, and to a lesser extent India, still maintained economic relations with Myanmar.
ASEAN maintained a strategic influence allowing Myanmar membership. But after General Thein Sein took over as President and held out a hand of reconciliation to Aung San Suu Kyi, the West reversed its policies and reduced economic sanctions and allowed its entrepreneurs to look into investments in Myanmar and access its resources.
The resentment built up over the years against Chinese domination among Burmese military men, officials and even ordinary villagers, who were at the butt end of Chinese arrogance, exploded. There were public protests at sites where Chinese investors, either government, para statals or the PLA , exploited Burmese natural resources, to which the military government took a very laidback attitude, China got the message. The question being asked in Beijing’s foreign policy establishment is ‘How did we lose Myanmar?’
At one time China was a dominant force in the world. In the Sung era (960-1126), Chinese had a massive bout of technological innovation, gun powder, movable type and sternpost were all discovered. This resulted in a huge surge of economic activity in the 10th to the 13th centuries. The discovery and adoption of a variety of rice which permitted two crops a year from well-irrigated land led to massive surpluses being produced.
On the industrial side, one scholar estimates within a few years of the battle of Hastings in England (1066), China was producing as much iron ore as the whole of Europe centuries later. When the Italian adventurer Marco Polo was in China at the end of the 13th century – ‘a sort of black stone’ – coal, was being burnt for providing heat. Chinese sailors in Sung dynasty times already used the magnetic compass. Naval expeditions were using huge sea going Sampans to reach the Persian Gulf, Aden and East Africa in the 15th century. Admiral Cheng Ho arrived in Galle in 1410 with a fleet and kidnapped the local ruler and his family and left behind a plaque in Chinese, Arabic, Tamil and Persian commemorating his visit. It is now in the Galle Maritime Museum.
Gavin Menzies, in his book ‘1421 – the Year the Chinese discovered the World,’ says that there is evidence that Admiral Cheng’s fleet sailed West from Galle to Calicut and on across the Indian Ocean to Malindi on Africa’s East coast and Sofala near Madagascar and even rounded the Cape. This was the height of ancient Chinese oceanic power. Thereafter China turned inwards – the limitations of the Confucian ethos, the over confidence and arrogance buttressed by great resources and remoteness, made it difficult for China to learn from outside.
In the early 15th century the Ming dynasty by imperial decree forbade Chinese ships to sail beyond coastal waters. Chinese shipyards lost the technological capacity to build the big ocean going Sampans. Admiral Cheng Ho’s ground breaking voyages were forgotten. This vacuum was filled by European explorers who heralded the European colonisation of Asia, in search of spices. They were competing with Arab traders who held the monopoly up to then.
On the Indian sub continent also there was no large naval power, compared with the Chola’s or East Asia’s Sri Vijaya empires of earlier times. From around 1500 to the time of the Second World War, Europeans dominated the sea lanes of Asia. For the next few decades, the United States of America and the USSR divided the world into spheres of influence. Japan, secure under US protection dominated world trade, the East Asian miracle and the crash soon followed. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States dominated, until China has now emerged.
China’s rise as an economic powerhouse
After the China’s economy was liberalised, allowing private business, agriculture and animal husbandry, and foreign investors were allowed to come into the coastal areas adjoining Hong Kong and open up factories for labour intensive manufacture, exploiting China’s vast pool of cheap labour.
China’s rise as an economic powerhouse was preordained from the day Deng Hsiao Ping unshackled the economy in 1979. Indigenous Chinese capitalism, re-manifested itself, last seen, in the pre-revolutionary days, in Shanghai and Hong Kong, private businesses, affluent consumers, humming export factories, stock markets which are the darling of investors and Chinese bureaucrats and officials in business suits, female consumers in the latest Western fashions, a change from Mao’s tunic.
The China price is something no other nation based manufacturer can match, as the Shanghai and Guangzhou World Trade Fairs show. This is slowly changing; labour shortages due to the now abandoned ‘one child policy’ China, costs are increasing. China has abandoned, Deng’s advice ‘China should adopt a low profile and never take the lead’ for a much more aggressive international posture. As China’s foreign reserves and terms of trade improved and the need to secure raw material and markets abroad, China went further afield to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and even West Asia, Africa, which was a key source of raw materials for China’s industry.
Apprehensions over Asian imperialists
There always have been apprehensions over Asian imperialists. Way back in 1947, Ceylon, expressed concerns over domination of Asia generally and south Asia specifically, by India and China. The issue was raised at the Asian Relations conference held at New Delhi in March-April 1947.
The Ceylonese delegation expressed concerns that small countries in Asia might be faced with aggression, not necessarily political, but economic and demographic, by their big brothers like China and India. Ceylon was at the time was having a running battle with India over the nationality of the Indian plantation workers and traders living in the island.
Although China had made assurances that Chinese immigrant communities would never seek political power in other Asian states they were resident in, the subsequent history of Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, present a contrary story. The Burmese delegation spoke of apprehensions of Brown or Yellow exploitation replacing White colonial exploitation.
In ancient times there have been contacts – the earliest recorded mission from China to Lanka took place during the time of the Han dynasty’s Emperor Ping (1-6 CE). Between the first and 10th centuries, Lanka’s kings, it is recorded, sent at least 10 missions to the Middle Kingdom.
In the fifth century the Buddhist scholar Fa Hsien visited the Maha Vihara in Anuradhapura. Archaeological evidence at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and especially Yapahuwa has turned up Chinese artefacts such as ceramic ware and coins belonging to the Sung dynasty. Chinese seagoing Sampans would have berthed at Gokanna, the modern Trincomalee, and traders would have gone cross country to Anuradhapura to trade with traders from the West, Jews, Moors and Europeans, who also came to Anuradhapura overland after their vessels docked at Manthai, the modern Mannar.
The South West and North East monsoon winds would have propelled these vessels. Dependence on monsoon wind power, meant that the traders would have been compelled to stay in Lanka during the inter monsoon period, their prolonged presence would have a substantial impact. Anuradhapura had a separate area for traders, designated by royal edict and special taxes were levied on foreign traders, at the ports of Manthai, Gokanna, and Magampura and in the capital city Anuradhapura. The pair of guardian lions at the bottom of the ascent of the stairs to Yapahuwa bears a striking resemblance to ancient Chinese sculptured lions.
Whatever the ancient history, how can one discount the Rubber Rice Pact, the BMICH, the assistance provided in the war against the LTTE, ships, aircraft, weapons and armaments, NORINCO’s store at Boosa in Galle of T56s and ammunition, which were supplied on a payable-when-able basis, the Nelum Pokuna Centre for the Performing Arts at the former CMC grounds in Colombo, highway construction, Hambantota Harbour, Mattala Airport, Norochcholai, loans, equipment and grants for Maga Naguma, the FTA in the offing, support at the UNCHR at Geneva?
Chinese footprint in Lanka
Today China has a huge footprint in Lanka. Chinese construction workers have been issued work visas to undertake construction projects in Lanka. Financing, in the nature of grants, concessionary and commercial loans from Chinese State banks are flooding the country.
The Chinese construction workers are generally getting a bad press in Lanka. Reports of protected animals like pangolins, tortoises and monkeys, considered delicacies in China, being killed for consumption, lack of adequate safety standards, Chinese worker being killed in construction site accidents., etc. turn public opinion to negative.
How such behaviour in Myanmar and Africa led to alienation is a good case study for both Lanka and Chinese policymakers. China, by its close collaboration with the military dictators, built resentment among the Burmese people. In Africa too, the people are beginning to see the downside of Chinese investment.
Overwhelming economic influence, if not handled sensitively, can have negative consequences. Buying up leaders is one thing, support from the ordinary man is something else altogether! For China to be a positive force in its inevitable world dominant role, the sooner these lessons are learnt, in a peaceful and constructive environment, the better for us all.
China is well on its way to dominate the world, as it did before the European powers colonised huge parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America and fought the Opium War to force China to open up its markets. But Africans and Lankans have to realise that China has to learn and internalise some hard lessons, especially from their Myanmar experience, before this can happen without conflict.