WASHINGTON, July 29 (UPI) -- U.S. lawmakers expressed concern over Beijing's growing influence in Africa, raising fears China would gain control of critical resources and undercut U.S. efforts to promote democracy and good governance on the continent.
In his opening statement Thursday at the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, Chairman Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., appeared concerned over what he considered China's support of African dictators.
"China is playing an increasingly influential role on the continent of Africa, and there is concern that Chinese intend to aid and abet African dictators, gain a stronghold on precious African natural resources and undo much of the progress that has been made on democracy and governance in the last 15 years in African nations," he said.
Rep. Donald Payne. D-N.J., ranking member on the committee, echoed those concerns, likening the U.S. and Chinese pursuit of resources in Africa to the Cold War-era competition for influence in the region.
"Engagement of China and the U.S. in Africa has begun to resemble a competition for resources and influence that has the potential to result in an ugly dynamic akin to that created by the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the Cold War," he said.
The committee held the hearing a day after Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe's visited China. Although specifics have yet to emerge of the meeting, the BBC reported they involve financial and military support.
Zimbabwe is now the focus on international attention and criticism as Mugabe has embarked upon a plan to clear the capital, Harare's, slums, which he says are a breeding ground for crime. Critics say they house supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition grouping. Thousands have been made homeless. Mugabe's other policies have made him a target of European Union sanctions.
Lawmakers also noted China's involvement with Sudan, a country the United States has accused of committing genocide in the western Darfur region.
Human Rights Watch reported China has supplied Khartoum with ammunition, tanks, fighter aircrafts, helicopters and mines. In 1999, Chinese firms constructed an oil refinery near Khartoum and now own it jointly with the government of Sudan. The China National Petroleum Corp. owns 40 percent of Sudan's largest oil producing company. China receives roughly 5 percent of its oil from Sudan.
Payne warned the competition for resources in Africa should not prompt the United States to backtrack on its governance and human rights standards when starting relations with countries in Africa.
The "U.S. must not let the current competition with China influence decisions in the same way they did in the late '80s when dictators were propped up and supported for decades just because they sided with us and not the USSR," said Payne.
He referred to former President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire who was found to have misappropriated U.S. aid given to his country.
But China's involvement in the continent, though not new, has grown substantially over the past several years as its demand for energy and resources rises, and its influence is a growing sticking point for the United States.
China now receives some 30 percent of its oil from Africa, and trade between China and the continent doubled between 2002 and 2004. Two-way trade has now reached $21.6 billion, according to the International Monetary Fund, and Africa's imports from China are $9.6 billion.
China has become increasingly involved in construction projects in Africa, including a bid for Ethiopia's Takazee Dam, one of the largest hydroelectric dams in Africa. Chinese companies now win 80 percent of the construction contracts in Botswana.
But Michael E. Ranneberger, principal deputy assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, who testified at the hearing in Washington, said the increased Chinese engagement in the continent should not be seen as a threat.
"Nations from every region are seeking markets in Africa, and African sources of energy, the same as in other regions," he said. "In fact, this can work to advance our goals in Africa to the extent that it serves to increase prosperity and stability and thereby contributes to increased respect for human rights and individual freedom."
Similar positions have been taken by the Bush administration on China's increased involvement abroad. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in March "clearly America has reason to welcome the rise of a confident, peaceful, and prosperous China. We want China as a global partner, able and willing to match its growing capabilities to its international responsibilities."
Ranneberger testified that China's policy toward Africa remained "primarily oriented toward economic and commercial goals," and argued that "China's increased engagement on the continent provides opportunities for cooperation."
"The strength of America's engagement in Africa, and the strong advances Africa is making in so many fields, with out help, is the context in which we view China's increasing presence in the African continent," he said.
Members of the committee also used the hearing to address concerns about China potential to be the next superpower, and what they felt were contradictory U.S. policies toward China.
"We need to figure out what our policy is because clearly the PRC (People's Republic of China) is laying the groundwork to become the next superpower," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.
Payne addressed similar concerns, saying policy toward China was inconsistent and the United States needed to win the hearts and minds of Africans. But Ranneberger said China's involvement in Africa was a way to engage the PRC constructively, not as another landscape for competition.
"China's growing presence in Africa is a reality, but it can increase the potential for collaboration between the United States and China as part of a broader, constructive bilateral relationship," he said.