Geoffrey Chongo with supporters
With the world's fastest-growing economy, China is increasingly reaching out beyond its borders. It invests billions of dollars abroad, a significant portion of this in pursuit of foreign energy supplies and minerals.
Chinese Investment in Africa was highlighted at last weekend’s National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) Conference by Geoffrey Chongo, a CAFOD partner in Zambia who works for the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection. Zambia is rich in Copper, Nickel and other minerals, yet eight million Zambians live on less than $1 a day. In recent years, Chinese companies have moved in, particularly in the mining industry and infrastructural development. Exports have increased exponentially and around 10,000 jobs have been created. However, the Jesuits are concerned about poor health and safety standards at Chinese mines in Zambia – for example, no provision of protective clothing. On two occasions in the past year workers have been shot during protests about conditions. There is also worry that the environment around mines is being heavily polluted and undermining local food production and water supplies. Chongo reported that, to date, “Chinese investment in Africa has not been the basis for a win-win situation”. In addition, the displacement of local traders and businesses by Chinese traders and goods has not been popular.
In Angola, China has been offering loans since 2003 when the nation emerged from civil war. To date, it has extended credit lines to Angola worth $15bn as Chinese companies build new infrastructure in the country. In return, Angola sends China its oil. But critics argue that essentially the money stays in China, failing to produce a knock-on effect on the Angolan economy. Here too the perceived failure of China’s cash to significantly boost development while increasing the country’s debt burden has produced rumblings against the Chinese. Yet, China is not alone in taking advantage of rich pickings in Africa. It should be noted that 15 percent of African arable land has been bought up by the Western nations.
China’s military role in the world was addressed at the conference by Pat Gaffney, the General Secretary of Pax Christi. She reported that China’s defence budget is the second largest in the world, behind the US, contributing to the breakneck speed of Chinese military modernisation over the last decade. The US announcement in January of a shift in its focus to Asia has prompted China to develop a range of capabilities linked to the space and cyber domain in order to sidestep the overwhelming might of the US military in the Pacific region. However, a recent report on Chinese foreign policy by the British group Saferworld concludes that, “at least for now, non-interference, stable regimes and stable relations that are conducive to maintaining China’s global economic engagement, will retain precedence in guiding Beijing’s diplomatic relations with conflict-affected states”.
Pat felt it is important to stand back and look at the militarisation of the whole Asia Pacific region to understand China's role and to see that there is an arms race taking place. The US, for example, is exporting arms to China’s neighbours - South Korea, Taiwan, Australia. The UK is exporting arms to India, Australia and China; Russia is exporting arms to India, Vietnam and China. To add to this we have four declared nuclear powers: China, India, Pakistan and Russia and one non-declared, North Korea, in the region. All this points to the huge danger of military proliferation in Asia, with super-powers dividing their military support.
Pax Christi International is especially concerned about tensions surrounding the US construction of a military base on the Korean island of Jeju, which lies just 300 miles from the Chinese mainland. The pristine coastline of Jeju Island faces destruction, motivated by the US urge to encircle China with its Aegis anti-ballistic system – something China has called a dangerous provocation – and by the South Korean navy’s construction of a massive naval base for aircraft carriers, submarines and destroyers to carry Aegis. Jeju’s villagers - tangerine farmers and fishing families - have been camping out on the endangered coast for five years, putting their lives on the line to protect it. International peace campaigners warn that the project does not advance the security of Jeju or South Korea - it just adds to military tension on and around the Korean peninsula. Columban Fr Pat Cunningham, who has said Mass and supported vigils on Jeju, says “the people are so grateful for any international solidarity shown”. On 9 May Columban JPIC and Pax Christi members attended a vigil at the Korean embassy in London to ‘Save Jeju Island’.
Participants in Pat Gaffney’s workshop highlighted the need to establish other models of security for the region and for China in particular - based on cooperation over the use of resources and shipping rights. People to people exchanges were suggested which break down threats and barriers that politicians often seek to create. National cooperation on disarmament - including the responsibilities of our own government - and support for other international networks, such as scientists and engineers who are working to use their skills and expertise in non-military ways, were all underlined as being important.