Before you say it, yes, we've been mildly obsessed here at the Fool this past week with people ripping other people's faces off. This, of course, comes on the heels of the SEC announcement that it has charged Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) with defrauding investors. What this turn of phrase means, as my Foolish colleague Morgan Housel explained vis-a-vis Goldman, is that an investment bank structures deals that will ultimately bilk their clients in order to generate windfall profits for itself.
But if you think Goldman is criminally responsible for how it preyed on others with less information and fewer resources, then perhaps you haven't yet been clued in to China's dealings with Africa. Because it's this latter situation that has the potential to get truly troubling.
China's "stuff" gap
It's no secret that China thirsts for natural resources. That country's demand for oil increased 28% year-over-year in January, a magnitude of increase the International Energy Agency called "astonishing." Further, while China accounts for 20% of the world's population, it consumed just 10% of the world's oil in 2009. As that latter number continues to rise, China will find itself in more and more of a pickle because China's domestic oil production today satisfies just half of domestic demand. In other words, the country's energy security relies on imports -- a reality the government finds very unsettling.
The calculus is similar when it comes to other necessities such as metals, minerals, and food. In the food space, for example, due to urbanization and desertification, China is down to just 1.83 billion mu of arable land (mu is a Chinese measure of land area equal to approximately 667 square meters). This number is just above the 1.8 billion mu minimum the Chinese government has said is required to ensure the nation's food security.
What's concerning, however, is that the situation may be far worse than the government is letting on. China's estimate of domestic arable land has not changed since 2004 even though the country has undergone massive further development since then. The situation has gotten so precarious that the country actually suspended reforestation efforts last summer in order to preserve marginal farmland. All told, China needs a lot of stuff in order to continue to fuel its growth -- stuff it simply does not have access to within its borders.
All your stuff are belong to us
It's against this backdrop that cash-rich, Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) such as PetroChina (NYSE: PTR ) , Sinopec (NYSE: SNP ) , and CNOOC (NYSE: CEO ) have made resource acquisition in Africa an important part of their business strategies. Recently, that's included a joint venture between PetroChina and CNOOC to buy assets in Ghana, CNOOC's $2.5 billion purchase of Tullow Oil's assets in Uganda, and the $7.3 billion purchase last year by Sinopec of Addax -- whose portfolio included fields in Iraq and West Africa.
More directly, the Chinese government is also signing deals with African governments to secure rights to farmland and mineral resources in exchange for infrastructure building. The highest-profile action here may have been last summer's $9 billion agreement between China and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which delivered to two Chinese SOEs the rights to more than 10 million metric tons of copper and 600,000 tons of cobalt. And while China is delivering on its part of the agreement to build roads in the DRC, a fabulous recent article by Howard French in The Atlantic suggests that Chinese infrastructure construction won't actually benefit the country. First, there's the issue of maintenance (roads in that part of the world won't last more than a few years). Second, there's the fact that the first roads being built aren't useful for the general population or for local industry, but will rather simply connect the country estates of the current political elites to major cities.
This is graft, plain and simple (a practice Chinese business leaders reportedly are not unfamiliar with), and it looks like resource-rich African nations are giving up their natural wealth to China without realizing tangible, lasting benefits.
Word is not bond, but guns are
Of course, African governments are not known for their respect for contracts. Business Insider recently reported on Millicom International's (Nasdaq: MICC ) experience with the Senegalese government and that country's request for what essentially amounted to a $200 million bribe in order for Millicom to keep its operating license in the country.
Although that case has now gone to international arbitration, note that if an African country tried to "re-negotiate" rights like that with China or one of its SOEs with regard to their natural resource interests, it would find itself staring down not a publicly listed company willing to negotiate, but a desperate, sovereign nation with a fast-growing standing army. In fact, China's state-run English-language Global Times newspaper published an editorial in March advising the world that it is "Time to prepare for China's aircraft carrier." Why would a country like China need an aircraft carrier for any reason other than to protect important interests it now has very far from its borders?
Maybe China and Africa deserve each other
The current generation of Chinese and Africa leaders have been more than happy to swap resources for roads and riches. Yet it's looking more and more that at the end of the day, this does not end well for Africa or for the continent's people. Stripped of its land and its resources, what does that continent have to facilitate growth and development in the 21st century?
Unfortunately, it's unrealistic to expect that China will place African interests above its own. The country's government is all about self-preservation, which requires that it deliver food and fuel to its fast-growing nation. If that means ripping Africa's face off in the process, so be it. I'm not sure even Goldman would be capable of that.