Until now, China has been coy about making any development statement in Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves, owing much affinity, shared historical and long-standing ties and billions of dollars in foreign aid from the United States of America. This week, a 20-member Chinese business delegation is in Monrovia to explore several commercial opportunities with an eye on the much-talked about rehabilitation of the Roberts International Airport and the Wologisi Mountain Range in Lofa County.
Challenging Play for RIA
The Wologisi mine is estimated to hold several billion tonnes of iron ore reserves. The Chinese delegation, consisting of representatives of major Chinese mining, power and high-tech companies, is in Liberia to explore investments in infrastructure, energy and other fields. FrontPageAfrica has learned that the Chinese firm, Sino Hydro is part of a competitive bidding process for the airport rehab with the British firm, Lagan, the French Firm, Effiage and the Irish firm, Dawnos lurking in the winds.
The Indian firm, Jindal Steel had previously been attached to interests in Wologisi but not much has been heard about it since a high-power delegation from India made a splash in Liberia expressing strong interests in the mountain range. The Chinese interests in Wologisi and the RIA come in the aftermath of the failed takeoff of a multi-million dollar ministerial complex they had offered to build at no cost to Liberia whose only task was to provide the land.
While both Liberia and China have been quiet about why the project failed to commence, diplomatic observers point to speculations that Liberia was under pressure from the U.S. who were not too happy to see the Chinese put up such a massive structure on what is considered to be America’s backyard. In addition, squabbles over land and residents uneasiness over the demarcation line and uncertainty over reports that they would be evacuated from their homes; to make way for the structure; dampened what the Chinese had promised to be one of the most attractive structures in Africa.
At a reception for the Chinese delegation last week, Foreign Minister Augustine Ngafuan acknowledged the contributions the Chinese have made in Liberia in recent years and the inroads in the country’s development agenda. “We cannot talk about Liberia’s development without talking about China and its role,” Minister Ngafua said.
Praise for Liberia’s ‘True Friend’
Describing China as one of Liberia’s truest friends, Ngafuan went on to say that Liberia’s history since President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power in 2006 cannot be fully written if chapters are not dedicated to the very important role China has played and continues to play in the country’s recovery process from decades of war. The minister went on to cite China’s contribution to the recent Ebola crisis as a “test of the solidity,” noting that some individuals and countries stepped in to help while some others distanced themselves. “A friend in need is a friend in deed,” Ngafuan said.
The Chinese have in recent years began a strong push to change world perception with aggressive investments into Africa. That push, including a massive one in next-door Sierra Leone has caught Liberia’s eye. Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Koroma following a 2013 visit to China announced the signing of deals for a new international airport, a railway and raft of other huge construction projects totaling $US8bn.
The deal with China also includes a $1.7bn deal with the Kingho Energy Group to build a port, mine, power plant and 250km railway as well as a US$300 Mdeal with the Chinese Railway International Company to build a new international airport 60km from the capital Freetown. As appetizing as the Chinese development inroads have been, they have not come without its own shortcomings. Criticisms of poor road construction and rehabilitation by Chinese companies have not gone unnoticed leading many to criticize the Chinese for having preference to quantity over quality.
China’s inroads in Africa which includes a reported £70billion investment in the last decade compared to a reported £4billion ten years before, has drawn criticisms from the West with some countries questioning whether China can sustain the billions of dollars each year in loans to African countries just to extend political and economic influence is sustainable.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has been vocal about the Chinese invasion of Africa and what he describes as the ‘authorization capitalism’ of China, which is unsustainable in the long term although admitting that the West was increasingly alarmed by Beijing’s leading role in the new ‘scramble for Africa’. Critics have also taken Beijing to task for exporting millions of its citizens to Africa and competing with local businesses which in some cases like Liberia, strangulates the local economy and entrepreneurship.
Nevertheless, China appears not to be taking any chances in selling itself as the better of both worlds. Last week, during the celebration of the Chinese Army, a senior Captain in the Chinese army, Zhang Fenghua said his country opposes any form of hegemonism or power politics while adding that China unswervingly pursues an independent foreign policy and a national defense policy that is defensive in nature. He added that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.
Said captain Fenghua: “China will never seek hegemony or behave in a hegemonic manner, nor will it engage in military expansion.” He disclosed that his country advocates a new security concept featuring mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination and pursues comprehensive security, common security and cooperative security. Unflattering Take for U.S. from China In fact, the Chinese were not so flattering toward U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Africa, disparaging Obama’s travels as motivated by concern over Chinese widening influence on the continent.
The United States “obviously lacks a consistent Africa policy” and sees China as a rival for influence and economic opportunities “instead of another constructive power to bring welfare to the land,” opinion reporter Liu Zhun wrote in an op-ed published Monday in the English-language Global Times. “The U.S. used to be a dominant power in Africa,” Liu wrote. Saying trade volume between the two has fallen, he concluded that “a change of position has touched the nerves of the U.S.”
The Voice of America quoted a senior White House official last week as saying that the U.S. on the contrary, is building on “decades of development relationships” in Africa, where it has supported public health, food security and, especially now, the empowerment of Africans to create their own growth, their own job creation. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said has “played a constructive role” in Africa in areas such as developing infrastructure. Rhodes continued: “We’re not just in it for a set of natural resources; we’re here to build African capacity. And that type of partnership over the long run I think does distinguish the United States. It’s something that we bring uniquely to bear.” U.S. companies Chevron, Anardarko and ExxonMobil are currently engaged in oil exploration in Liberia while China Union (Wuhan Iron and Steel Company) and CHICO are actively in mining and mineral development.
Growing Chinese Influence
While the line of demarcation between China and the U.S. is miles apart, the Chinese influence is growing. Liberia’s relationship with the U.S. dates back to 1864 when relations were first established, following its independence from the American Colonization Society, an organization that resettled free African-Americans and freed slaves in Liberia.
According to the State Department, U.S. assistance and engagement is critical to Liberia’s short-term stability and long-term development and seeks to focus on professionalizing Liberia’s military and civilian security forces; consolidating democratic progress; improving capacity, transparency, and accountability of governance institutions; promoting broad-based and environmentally sustainable economic growth; improving access to high-quality educational and health services; and responding to the Ebola epidemic, while helping Liberia build capacity to plan, implement, and sustain its own development efforts in each sector.
In contrast, Liberia has a one China policy. Bilateral relations of the People’s Republic of China and Liberia began in 1977, but were broken on multiple occasions, only to be reformed later on. As of 2009, significant amounts of both investment and foreign aid came from China to Liberia. China direct investment in Liberia reached US$10 billion by 2010, according to a World Bank recent index report. There are approximately more than 70 Chinese official development finance projects ranging from renovating and constructing the Fendell Campus for Engineering of the University of Liberia, to a US$10 million contract with the Government of Liberia for the construction of a 100 bedroom hospital in Nimba County in 2008.
Relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Liberia have been broken and reestablished several times since February 17, 1977, when diplomatic relations between the PRC and Liberia were first formed. The PRC broke off relations with Liberia on October 10, 1989 in response to Liberia’s recognition of the Republic of Taiwan. Taiwan had offered $200 million in aid to Liberia for education and infrastructure in exchange for this recognition. The PRC reestablished relations with Liberia on August 10, 1993 and opened an embassy in Monrovia, making Liberia one of the few nations which established diplomatic ties to both the PRC and ROC. In 1997, the Charles Taylor government proclaimed to recognize “two Chinas” and the PRC subsequently severed diplomatic relations.
Liberia cut off diplomatic relations with the ROC on October 12, 2003 and reestablished ties with the People’s Republic of China. This move was seen largely as a result of the PRC’s lobbying in the UN and plans to deploy a peacekeeping force in Liberia. The Sirleaf government, according to Minister Ngafuan owes much to China for much of the development in the past ten years as he declared that Liberia’s history since President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf came to power in 2006 cannot be fully written if chapters are not dedicated to the very important role China has played and continues to play in the country’s recovery process from decades of war, he added. But with the clock ticking toward the completion of Sirleaf’s presidency, focus is already shifting toward the more pressing necessities on demand for Liberia, remains electrification of the country and the rehab of the RIA, which for some, appear to be a daunting possibility for the Chinese.
The RIA located near the town of Harbel, outside Monrovia has a long history with America as it was used as an emergency landing site for the United States’ Space Shuttle Program as part of a pact signed in 1942 between the U.S. and Liberia. The airport was originally built by the United States government as an Air Force base as part of these activities. The runway was built long enough for B- 47 Stratojet bombers to land for refueling, giving Liberia what was for many years the longest runway in Africa. The Americans, some observers say may not be willing to see a Chinese stamp on a significant piece of Liberia’s history which was badly ruined during the civil war.
For the foreseeable future as the Sirleaf government prepares for its last stretch, some political observers say the administration may be torn between pushing for more development aid from China without offending its traditional stepfather; while embellishing the prospect of what could have been in the case of the mishap surrounding the failure of the ministerial complex to take off. China’s willingness for now appears to be threatened by the ties that bind Liberia to America which has been accused by China of playing the ‘Family Card’; and a government on the way out, racing against time while struggling to cement a legacy of infrastructural development.