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China can pressure Africa to reform – UK minister

Nove 9, 2006 (LONDON) — African countries will benefit from Chinese investment if China acts as a responsible world player by pressuring governments there to reform, U.K. Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State David Triesman told Dow Jones Newswires Thursday in an interview.

The Group of Eight’s African aid efforts, agreed upon last year at its Gleneagles summit in Scotland, have helped to improve the continent “on balance,” said Triesman, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s minister for Africa. But some nations such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, despite drawing Chinese investment in their rich natural resources, have significantly regressed, he said.

China’s diplomacy in Africa is “an incredibly private process,” Triesman said, but he added that increasing pressure for reforms would have practical benefits even from a purely business perspective.

“They’ve tended to say, ‘We’ve come along with investment and without any ideological baggage,” Triesman said. But by promoting good governance and the rule of law, he added, China would increase the overall security of African countries “and improve the return on investment.”

The minister’s remarks follow the unprecedented Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit last week in China, where the Chinese government and representatives from 48 African countries signed deals worth $1.9 billion.

In a declaration read at the end of the forum, participants pledged a partnership based on “political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchanges.”

The summit aimed to boost trade and development between the world’s fastest-growing economy and its poorest continent.

“China is generating really considerable amounts of capital; it’s not surprising that it’s looking for serious investments” in Africa, Triesman said. “I don’t have any difficulty with it being Chinese investment.”

But investment in African countries brings some risks, and it’s sensible for investors to try to mitigate those uncertainties, the minister said.

In Sudan, China has invested in about 42% of the country’s plentiful oil reserves, yet it’s very difficult to build an effective oil industry when northern and southern Sudanese factions aren’t at peace, Triesman said.

What’s more, the Sudanese government is playing “an absolutely devastating role” in Darfur, where ethnic minority civilians have faced abuses, the minister said.

In Zimbabwe, China views the country as a “bargain basement” for resources because the economy has suffered from poor leadership, the minister said. He described Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as “day by day a more capricious dictator,” who has “treated his own people with such conspicuous brutality.”

Triesman dismissed Zimbabwean government claims that the country’s soured bilateral relations with the U.K. are at the root of its problems. He said the real problems are between the entrenched Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or Zanu-PF, ruling party and the Zimbabwean people it has abused.

“The truth is, it’s also now a failing state,” Triesman said. “You never know what else will follow.”

Four of five Zimbabweans aren’t formally employed, and half of those who do work earn below “starvation incomes,” Triesman said.

Although some economists still say Zimbabwe’s economy is on the verge of collapse, Triesman – who has an econometrics background – takes an even dimmer view.

“I think it’s blown,” he said.

“There is a covert economy and some subsistence farming,” but the country’s rampant unemployment, hyperinflation and incidence of disease make it unlikely the situation will substantially improve before Mugabe leaves power, he added.

For now, the U.K.’s aid efforts involve providing food to some 1.5 million Zimbabweans. But when the U.K. sees a real opportunity for Zimbabwe to push forward with democratic reform, “we will put our shoulder behind that,” Triesman said.

Despite some signs of improvement, African governments have varied widely in their individual performances. Besides Sudan and Zimbabwe, Triesman said Somalia also is “in a desperate state today.”

On the other hand, he said he sees “building blocks beginning to appear and corruption problems diminishing” in Sierra Leone and was encouraged by the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The Democratic Republic of Congo is a complex situation, so much so that if it succeeds, it will be used as a benchmark for other countries in similar situations,” Triesman said. That’s why the U.K. government helped in financially backing the electoral process, the U.N.’s mission in Congo and training of the new army, he said.

Also making positive strides, Senegal is a shining example of good governance, and Ghana is experiencing “tremendous development” and cementing in its culture “real harmony, real respect,” Triesman said.

Yet Africa still faces formidable challenges. Some 20 million African children go to bed at night “very hungry,” many more “pretty hungry,” and they won’t sleep under a properly treated mosquito net or get up and go to school in the morning, Triesman said.

Providing sustenance, education and preventing the spread of diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis remain important goals to work toward for the African continent, Triesman said.

Africa’s challenge, he added, is to “get enough people to care enough to drive those goals to a conclusion.”

(Dow Jones)