How China managed to outmaneuver the West in Chad

December 05, 2017 11:27
In return for Beijing’s huge economic aid, Chad has eagerly concluded a lot of oil deals with Chinese energy companies. Photo:

The landlocked African country of Chad has been little known to Hong Kong people until recently, when our former secretary for home affairs Patrick Ho Chi-ping was arrested by US authorities for allegedly bribing the country’s president for exclusive oil drilling rights on behalf of a Chinese energy company.

In fact, Chad is the fifth largest country in Africa in terms of size, with a population of roughly 14 million. The country was colonized by the French in the early 20th century and incorporated as part of the French Equatorial Africa, or Afrique Équatoriale Française, a loosely organized federal entity that included several French colonies in central Africa.

During the World War II, the Chadians contributed a lot to Free France led by General Charles de Gaulle in its war effort against the Nazis.

Chad, which gained independence in 1960, was once a vassal state of France. However, Chad, like neighboring Sudan and Nigeria, was a typical “divided nation” in terms of its complicated ethnic composition and religion.

Just five years into Chad’s independence, a bloody and long-lasting civil war erupted between the north and the south, largely out of resentment among the northern Muslims toward the ethnic and religious policies of Francois Tombalbaye, the founding father of independent Chad.

The civil war continued until 1979, when the Islamic rebels eventually conquered the south and toppled the Tombalbaye regime.

However, the fall of Tombalbaye didn’t bring peace to the country, as the Islamic rebels soon began to fight among themselves to compete for leadership, until one of their warlords, Hissene Habre, finally defeated all of his rivals and unified the country.

Ironically, Habre himself was overthrown by one of his generals, Idriss Deby, in 1990, who then proclaimed himself president and would continue to rule Chad to the present day. According to the US Justice Department, President Deby was the exact person Patrick Ho was allegedly trying to bribe.

Often known as the “Dead Heart of Africa”, Chad had remained an impoverished country until oil and other mineral resources were discovered at the beginning of the millennium.

Yet even so, the people of Chad were still unable to get out of poverty, mainly because of the fact that most of the country’s revenues from selling oil and other natural resources have gone into the pockets of notoriously corrupt government officials and vested interests.

As far as great western powers are concerned, they couldn’t care less about how corrupt the Chadian government and how poorly governed the country is as long as it isn’t harboring terrorists and, above all, they can continue to milk the country for oil.

Perhaps one thing worth mentioning is that Taiwan and Chad used to have close ties in the 1990s, during which Taipei offered the country some US$72 million in economic aid in exchange for formal bilateral diplomatic relations.

Unfortunately, the friendship between Taiwan and Chad only lasted for nine years, as in 2006, Beijing managed to win back Chad by providing the country with even juicier economic aid, which, so far, has already reached nearly US$220 million.

After the World Bank withdrew its funding for the Chadian government on the grounds that it had violated their bilateral agreement by spending the aid money on counterinsurgency rather than on building an oil pipeline to provide for its people, Beijing quickly seized the opportunity to extend the olive branch to N’Djamena and offered to build roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and even airports for it.

Unlike that of the World Bank, China’s aid to Chad was “unconditional”, and Beijing also promised not to “interfere in its domestic affairs”. And thanks to China’s “generosity”, the Chadian government was able to use the spare money to expand its army with the help of French military officers stationed there.

But of course, in reality, there is no such thing as “unconditional help” in world diplomacy. In return for Beijing’s huge economic aid, Chad has eagerly concluded a lot of exclusive oil deals with Chinese energy companies.

Today, Chinese energy giants have replaced ExxonMobil and the World Bank as the largest foreign investor in the Chadian oil industry.

As we can see, China’s diplomatic maneuvers in Africa have proven quite fruitful, thereby prompting the West to adopt counter-measures in the face of Beijing’s expansion on the continent.

On the other hand, the West is also stepping up its efforts to keep China’s growing influence in check by imposing international legal framework on it and sponsoring opposition parties as well as NGOs in African countries to provide “oversight” of other powers such as China.

If anything, civilians like Patrick Ho are nothing more than expendable pawns amid the ongoing fierce rivalry among the great powers in Africa.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 30

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal