Very reluctantly, we are told, French President François Hollande was forced to order French troops to intervene in Mali, a former West African colony. There was no other way to ward off disaster, to prevent yet another failed African state from becoming a haven for terrorists linked to Al Qaeda. France had strong cultural, economic and military links to the region that couldn't be ignored.
The risks of France's vague, open-ended venture -- which the U.S. has already indicated it will support -- are already being debated. But what I find particularly ironic is that the country that has probably most to gain from the intervention -- is China.
Because, by thwarting the rebels' drive, France and its partners-to-be will be preserving the security not only of Mali's rickety regime, but of Mali's neighbors as well, also former French colonies, none of which can make a serious claim to stability.
But in every one of those countries, China does big business -- in several of them, very big business.
- In Niger, for instance, where France has a program of military cooperation, a Chinese company operates what is China's largest uranium mine, at Azelik--breaking what was a defacto monopoly on Niger's reserves once enjoyed by France.
- China also runs a major oilfield and has signed a deal to upgrade the country's power supplies.
- In Chad, where per capital income is about900 per year, the French have a large airforce base that is being used for their offensive in Mali. The Chinese have a different kind of operation: their national petroleum corporation is backing a1 billion dollar project, to lay 300 kilometers of pipelines from oilfields in Southern Chad to a Chinese-built refinery near the capital, Ndjamena. The refinery is jointly owned by China and Chad. China is also building a new international airport nearby.
- The Ivory Coast, once a jewel of the French colonial crown, also has a French military base, and lots of French business interests. But just two days before President Hollande intervened in Mali, it was announced in Abidjan, that China and the Ivory Coast had agreed on a massive500 million low-interest loan from China's Export Import bank -- to finance the construction of a hydropower station -- by a Chinese engineering firm -- that will be the largest in the country and will export power to neighboring countries.
- China is also drilling for oil in the Cameroon, building an airport and port in Mauritania, importing cotton from Burkina Faso, making huge deals for iron ore in Guinea and Sierra Leone, while building schools, hospitals, stadiums, not to mention railway lines all over the continent.
So why is China willing to make such massive gambles in a part of the world where governments seem to change from week to week, and huge countries like Mali, which used to be considered one of West Africa's most stable regimes, can disintegrate into chaos almost overnight?
Part of it is that China, to fuel its soaring economy, is willing to get along with just about anyone in power. They're not out to organize coups, overthrow regimes or impose their views.
And in much of West Africa, at least, they've probably been bolstered by the thought that, when the chips were down, highly trained and equipped French and American troops would help keep chaos at bay.
Indeed, the Pentagon is building small, discrete bases -- known as lily-pads -- across the continent, and has also assigned more than three American thousand troops to work with and train African solders to deal with "terrorist" threats, like the one that's just exploded in Mali.
If the presence of those foreign troops ultimately rubs the native population the wrong way, due to anything from cultural differences to civilian deaths in collateral damage, it's the French and/or Americans and their African military allies who will have to take the heat.
Without any of their own boots on the ground, without helicopter gun ships or drones in the air, and not a single base outside of China, it won't be the Chinese.
That's how it's been in many other parts of the world, particularly the Middle East: the Chinese have had a free ride, with the U.S. and its allies patrolling key trade routes, intervening in the name of political stability.
At least, that's the way it was. But with the French and other NATO countries more reluctant to intervene than ever, and with the U.S. military facing major budget cuts, the day will soon come when China will have to pick to pick up its own security tab, protect its own trade routes, become a major cop on the global beat.
Many of China's leaders know that. Which is part of the reason for their on-going military build up, particularly the navy. They've also already made a deal to train Afghan soldiers now that the U.S. is pulling out.
That may all make a lot of sense -- from China's view.
But how on earth will the U.S. adjust?