The Contours of China-Africa Relations

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mong the fulcrum points of contemporary international affairs, the relationship between China and the more than fifty countries that make up Africa is among the most closely watched. Critics and defenders alike cannot say enough about Beijing’s ties with the mysterious continent.

Contemporary realities and prospective gains are what drive a state’s foreign policy. Thus, while it may have been a different set of motives that drove Africa and China to one another between the 1960s and 1980s (this interesting history and its impact on the relationship today will be returned to at a later section), to students watching and studying the relationship between China and African countries, there are three main motives to Beijing’s interest in Africa today. Firstly, there is the oft-stated prospect of natural resources on which most critics tend to end their analysis. Secondly, there are the opportunities to be gained in the vast markets in Africa’s growing middle class. Thirdly, there are political considerations that Beijing has as its main aims and tries to hasten at all times; chief among these is its being recognised as the “one China” instead of Taiwan by African states and, some argue, the alienation of the west within Africa in a battle for economic frontiers and political allies.

Likewise, Africa has a set of its own motives in engaging with China. A cursory look at the African Union’s Vision 2063 will reveal these in depth. But very briefly, we can state here that they include funding for its initiatives to do with industrialisation, infrastructure, as well as education and healthcare in face of the structural adjustment programmes which prescribed austerity measures such as cutting government spending beginning in the 1980s under conditional aid and loans from Bretton Woods institutions.

The relationship between Africa and China has so far not been particularly perfect and harmonious. The most salient example of this is perhaps the reality that China has tended to export more to the continent than the other way round. Even though there are more than fifty African countries, the balance of trade is tipped in favour of China. Looking at the characteristics of the trade, an even more oblique picture emerges as it is clear that China mainly imports mineral resources (timber and forestry from Gabon, copper from Zambia, cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and oil from Angola to mention a few) and in turn exports into the continent manufactured textiles and technologies which, because of their affordability, tend to bring about a crowding-out effect on the continent’s domestic producers. In fact, trade unions have been at the forefront of attempting to curb China’s access to African markets. The Congress of South African Trade Unions in South Africa launched a “buy local” campaign that was motivated by a perceived threat posed by China in 2012. Moreover, more jobs have allegedly been threatened in the West African coast by alleged illegal fishing by Chinese nationals. Furthermore, less than optimum conditions in Chinese-owned factories in Zambia led in 2004 to the death of close to 40 employees in an explosion. And throughout the window period in which African countries were given access to US markets by the American Growth Opportunity Act, Chinese companies allegedly took advantage of that and set-up and registered businesses in Africa so as to gain access to the US market for themselves.

Facts and allegations such as these have become ready points to those who claim that China is neo-colonial in its relations with continental Africa. According to the view, the lopsided and imbalanced trade is reminiscent of the “scramble for Africa” which characterised the colonial relations between the Western European states and their African colonies. In what has been termed the “New Scramble for Africa”, China is cast as the new colonial power in the continent taking advantage of the continent’s citizens and taking away valuable commodities in exchange only for trinkets. Yet, this is a view of the relationship that is grossly over-simplistic. The nuances are not completely appreciated. For example, the risks that China has taken in taking over tottering projects in the continent (Nigeria’s oil sector, and Sudan after allegations of terrorism sponsoring, for example) are overlooked. Overlooked too, are the billions of aid that the People’s Republic gave without conditions to the continent while it was itself still a developing entity in the twentieth century, and even today. The high watermark of Africa and China’s relationship has been formed on the back of these contributions. The People’s Republic also has as one of its claimed principal aims the improvement of the relations into a win-win scenario.

Despite claims to do with China's “neo-colonialism”, China has differentiated itself from the West by being avowedly non-interfering in internal African governance issues. This has been its niche. But some scholars read into this a lack of long-term orientation in Beijing’s interest in Africa. In other words, China seems to be only – and temporarily so – interested in extracting resources to complete its developmental project. Otherwise, the critics claim, she would be much more interested in improving Africa’s polities as a sign of long-term orientation.

On the other hand, some argue that China is fostering good governance in a manner that is both prudent and organic. As one Chinese government-associated scholar, He Wenping, sees it, “the fact is China is striving to develop economic and trade cooperation in Africa, helping African countries in large scale infrastructure development, raising people's living standard, reducing poverty and vigorously developing African personnel training programs, which are all helping to build an economic and human resources foundation for Africa to realize democracy and good governance.” Under this view, China may be, coincidentally or otherwise, promoting (at least the conditions for) democratization through bringing in social and economic development and therefore – if democratization theorists are to be believed – will create a middle class that is capable of bringing about democratic change. Economic development also means a rooting out of “careerism” in African politics; alternative forms of enrichment apart from politics in the private sectors improves governance and leads to declines in corruption. Furthermore, according to a Brookings Institute report, China has not been a funder of unscrupulous dictators as is nominally argued. The greatest volume of China’s investment, the report states, is concentrated in democratic or semi-democratic states – Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia. And South Africa, largely considered the most democratic state on the continent, is China’s largest trading partner on the continent.

The earliest contact between China and Africa can be traced to the Han dynasty around 200 BC and more sporadic contacts between then and the seventeenth century when the Qing Dynasty famously began an inward turn and the Emperor banned all outside visitation and either burned sea-going vessels or let them rot without maintenance. But no understanding of the current set of relations between the two entities could be proper without appreciating the immense impact of the Cold War era between the late 1940s and 1980s in which so much of the present world order was forged. It was in these years that USSR-aligned China sponsored and even trained communist and other left-leaning movements in Africa. After the outright break with Moscow, China went on its independent, and in many ways more successful tirade to win allies on the continent by sponsoring those independence and revolutionary parties that were not only anti-West but also not yet in cooperation with the Soviets. The most noteworthy among these movements was perhaps Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its encompassing Zimbabwean African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) which was fighting a bush war against Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia and went on to become the ruling party of independent Zimbabwe. The great result of this being that the relationship between the two countries is extremely positive today. China also has close relations with Angola and Mozambique for almost similar, though perhaps more controversial reasons.

Other outcomes for the present relations between Africa and China were not entirely positive. Due to its zeal for funding and aiding particularly leftist parties in Africa, in the throes of the Cold War, China may have also alienated some African countries who were pro-West – Cameroon, whose President Ahidjo at the time (1963) stated that “China is one of the states supporting terrorism in Cameroon. We have proof, for Cameroonian terrorists are in Communist China,” is a particular example. Perhaps because of this, Cameroon was among the last African countries to recognize mainland China over Taiwan as the One China. Still, China and Africa share a common and painful history of sufferings under colonial invasions. Today in the modern era, they also share the goal of common development for survival and development in a self-consciously Western-dominated international order.

The almost exponential spike in Chinese investment in Africa occurred in the years succeeding 2000. It cannot be coincidence that this is the year in which the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation was established. To date, there have been five such meetings between Chinese and African statesmen. A cursory look at each of these fora will reveal the extent to which they have been a launching ground for initiatives that have gone a long way in pushing African development further.

The first conference, which took place on Chinese soil, passed the Beijing Declaration of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation and the Programme for China–Africa Cooperation in Economic and Social Development which has laid the basis of future forums and engagement. The second conference, which took place in Ethiopia, saw an increase in attendance and awareness as more than 70 ministers from China and 44 African countries attended the conference. The Conference passed the Addis Ababa Action Plan (2004-2006) which had among its declarations both entities’ plans for further trade plans as well as debt relief and development commitments. In the third conference, which returned to Beijing in 2006, PRC President Hu Jintao and heads of state from 35 African countries were in attendance. President Hu rolled out $5 billion worth of concessionary loans to Africa during the summit. As one of the “Eight Measures” for Sino-African relations, President Hu announced the creation of the China-Africa Development Fund to further Chinese investment in Africa with US$1 billion of initial funding with its fund expected to grow to US$5 billion in the future. On the fourth conference, held in Egypt, there was a great deal of introspective reviewing of the Forum and in addition to this, A $10 billion low-cost loan was announced on November 9, 2009, double the $5 billion loan announced and implemented at the 2006 Beijing Summit. Furthermore, Wen announced that China will write off the debt of some of the poorest African nations. He said China will construct 100 new clean-energy projects on the continent covering solar power, bio-gas and small hydro-power and gradually lower customs duties on 95 percent of products from African states with which it has diplomatic ties. He also stated that China would undertake 100 joint demonstration projects on scientific and technological research, receive 100 African postdoctoral fellows to conduct scientific research in China and assist them in going back and serving their home countries. The number of agricultural technology demonstration centres built by China in Africa will be increased to 20. Likewise, 50 agricultural technology teams would be sent to Africa and 2,000 agricultural technology personnel would be trained for Africa, in order to help strengthen Africa’s ability to ensure food security. China also would provide medical equipment and antimalarial materials worth 500 million yuan to the 30 hospitals and 30 malaria prevention and treatment centres built by China and train 3,000 doctors and nurses for Africa. It was further stated that China will build 50 China–Africa friendship schools and train 1,500 school principals and teachers for African countries and increase the number of Chinese government scholarships to Africa to 5,500 by 2012. China will also train a total of 20,000 professionals of various fields for Africa over the next three years. Already, Africa, as a result of these initiatives, became the second largest engineering services contract market for China. Statistically, there are nearly a million Chinese in Africa, with 1,600 Chinese enterprises doing business on the continent.

The presence of China in Africa, and particularly the creation of the Forum has proven effective in ways that could not have been predicted. It has made other entities ever more willing to reconsider their relationship with the continent. In what economists term the “crowding-in effect” the United States under President Obama in particular set itself on a new, China-like path in the wake of the Forum. In what Lauren Dickey, writing for The Diplomat in 2014, labelled the US’s “belated beginning” in “its treatment of Africa as a strategic continent,” the country launched in 2014 the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington; historically, marking the first time a sitting American president had invited all the leaders of Africa to a single event to discuss regional issues and the macro US-Africa relationship (a la FOCAC). If indeed emulation is the highest form of flattery, then FOCAC must rightfully exalt at its exemplary stature. In the meeting, promises were made by President Obama of, amongst others, a $14 billion commitment by U.S. companies for investments in Africa’s construction, manufacturing, energy, finance, and technology sector. With President Donald Trump’s unpredictable administration, we cannot yet say for certain whether this reconsideration of the relationship will continue, but so far there has been evidence that it may not, as the budget for international aid, for example, got considerable cuts proposed (at the time of writing, US Congress was opposing the motion, however).

Nevertheless, regarding the prospect of a far-reaching full win-win relationship, usage of the Forum beyond just as an aid-granting and investment platform must involve tackling other implicative and negative issues. The Forum, for example, has spoken very minimally on perhaps one of the most important issues facing Africa today: climate change. This, no doubt, would be a major bone of contention as Beijing is one of the leading polluters in the world today. But the Forum cannot be said to be living up to its mandate if it fails to delve into potentially polarizing issues of the contemporary age. But it may not be, as shown in an article in Modern Diplomacy, China is ready to be the leader of the clean energy revolution; and even a cursory look at China’s current Five-Year Plan for the years between will reveal quite the extent to which Africa is crucial to China’s aims and will thereby paint a clear picture of the Forum and its significance. The list of the aims include economic growth with a “medium-high” GDP target of 6.5 percent; double GDP and per capita income by 2020 from the 2010 base; foreign investment increase; yuan convertibility by the year 2020; and increase in welfare as well a relaxing of the One Child policy to a Two Child policy all show just how crucial it is for China to have as many economic partners as attainable and Africa, as a source of both natural resources and market frontiers, is indispensable to the rising giant. The Forum, while far from perfect, has an important and increasingly central role to play in harmonising the gains between China and Africa.

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