China’s Search for strategic partners globally

Authors: Wang Li &Bokang Malefane Theoduld Ramonono

A
lthough it is a routine practice for Chinese Foreign Minister to make a visit to Africa at the beginning of each year since 1990, it is quite rare for Chinese FM to visit the African states twice in a span of four months (2017).

Following his first visit to five states of Africa--- Madagascar, Zambia, Tanzania, Congo and Nigeria scheduled for January 7-12, FM Wang Yi made his second trip to Africa during May 19-23, in which he visited Mauritania, Cape Verde, Mali and Côte d'Ivoire. Given the aforementioned, it is important to delve into the strategic thinking of the Chinese policy-makers in terms of what reasons are behind this a typical occurrence? Undoubtedly, 2017 marks a seminal year for the implementation of the outcomes acceded to at the Johannesburg summit held in 2016, as China plans to promote its comprehensive ties with Africa en bloc to proximate a strategic partnership. As Chinese official statements have reiterated, the primary purpose of FM Wang Yi’s visits to Africa twice in a 4-month period are the attainment of consensus with the leaders of African countries in a view of further advancing a long-term partnership between China and Africa.

Needless to say, China began to forge its relationship with Africa in the 1960s with the highly acclaimed diplomatic debut visit by Premier Zhou En-lai between 1963 and 1964. It was during his safari in Africa that Premier Zhou laid down the key tenets of China’s aid programs to Africa. As a favorable return, the majority of newly-independent African states not only extended their recognition to the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China, but also demonstrated unwavering endorsement of Beijing’s ascension as a permanent occupant of a seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). With its burgeoning power, the East Asian giant has become increasingly proactive in its attempts to strengthen its strategic mutual relations with African states.

First is the strategic consideration. Foreign Minister’s aimed to induce African governments to assume an integral part in the Belt & Road initiative proposed during President Xi Jin-ping’s visit to Kazakhstan in 2013. Accordingly, the up-grade and subsequent transformation of China-African cooperation is not only inevitable but essential. Under the proposals set forth at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation's (FOCAC) summit in Johannesburg held in 2016, the China-Africa win-win cooperation has illustrated "three new changes". Primarily, the transformation from government-led cooperation to the market oriented one, and an upgrade from general commodity trade to capacity cooperation and processing trade. Lastly, the essence of their cooperation shifted from accustomed project contracts to a seismic expansion of investment and construction. Even though a gloomy world economy has featured sluggish growth in global trade, the capacity of the China-Africa cooperation and the novel alignment of their industrial policies have grown robust resulting in a rapid growth with a plethora of Chinese enterprises seeking to invest and establish business ventures in African markets. In light of this line of reasoning, Wang Yi visited the resource-rich countries of Congo and Nigeria, and the potential markets such as Madagascar and Mauritania. Meanwhile, he toured Zambia and Tanzania, countries regarded as well-established key regional players and strategic partners of China in Africa, respectively. Due to this, on May 22 FM Wang Yi stated that China’s cooperation with Africa would benefit the local people. Considering the dimensions of the Belt & Road Initiative beyond Chinese geographical scope, it is of strategic significance for China to work with African leaders to be involved in the “Belt & Road Initiative”. At a recent Forum of the Belt & Road Initiative, the President of China expressed that no matter where you are from, as long as you truly endorsed this concept, you are welcome to be a part of the grand cooperation.

Secondly, China has specific approach to its interaction with Africa in the context of globalization. Despite an unpredictable international situation and world economy, China took action to keep its words and comprehensively implement the summit's outcome so as to bring more benefits to the African and Chinese societies at an early date. For example, agreements signed in various fields between China and Africa valued at over U.S.$ 50 billion between December 2015 and July 2016. No doubt, most African states have been eager to alleviate themselves from significant natural resource dependency. The acceleration of the development of African national industries would promote their production capacity in order to achieve their economic independence, and further solidify China’s reputation as the most suitable and reliable country to offer the expansive assistances. Thus far, Chinese labor has been instrumental in the construction of numerous symbolic infrastructure projects, including but not limited to the newly-completed rail-line connecting the capital of Kenya (Nairobi) to its coastal city and port hub of Mombasa, and the highly anticipated network of Chinese-built railroads in East Africa. To that end, the Chinese leadership’s eagerness to upgrade the bilateral relations with Africa in terms of comprehensive package of aid is evident in the construction of over 3200 miles railroad and high-speed highway in the continent as a whole, inclusive of more than 200 schools of all kinds, 114 hospitals and 43 medical detachments in 42 countries. In addition, China’s peacekeeping efforts on the African continent have range from non-combat peacekeepers in medical and engineering roles to the deployment of troops in Sudan. More significant is that China put forward a proposal of “ten-project cooperation” at the G-20 summit in 2016 when it was held in Hangzhou, China. On the whole, China has conscientiously paid more attention and made tremendous efforts to promote its image vis-a-vis the egregious history of former European exploits on the African continent.

Thirdly, Beijing actively employs its conventional diplomatic strategy to isolate Taiwan out of critical international deliberations under the ‘One China Policy’. Although China has established formal relations with 48 out of 54 African states, the leaders in Beijing are still angered by the "independent rhetoric" made by the current leaders of the Taiwan ruling party, in particular their possible efforts to attend international organizations or forums with aim of representing Taiwan as an independent state. It undergoes extraordinary naming contortions merely to take part in institutions and events such as the Olympic Games, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and most recently, the government’s decision to send a delegation to the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly of which Taiwan is not recognized as a member.

Now the questions arise how Chinese leaders have so steadily moved toward the directions mentioned above. In summation, the Chinese strategy can be clarified into three points. First, the Chinese leadership avowedly believes that both China and Africa en bloc had a common past in which the two partners were humiliated by European powers. In the post-Cold War era, they share a desire to develop their economies, and maintain peace and stability. In particular, Chinese and African leaders have reiterated the common position of the principles of equality, mutual benefit and mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty (non-intervention). Second, there is the relatively mutual trust in strategic partnership. Due to China’s recent economic growth and political flexibility, China has expressed its will to extend aid to African countries which are eager to get rid of their poverty and dependence on exclusive resources export. This is exactly what the majority of African states have beseeched of China in order to accomplish their political independence and economic sufficiency. Finally, many Chinese are of the firm belief that over the previous decades, Africa and China have helped each other in numerous ways. Certainly, China provided limited but essential aid to assist in the attainment of African self-independence and in return these African partners have endorsed China’s position in international affairs.

In conclusion, China has high expectations for Africa as the latter has an immense reservoir of resources to spur its envisioned growth and China’s economic growth. As a rising power, China’s work in conjunction with Africa towards the creation a more just and impartial world order places the East Asian giant in a stronger position to provide more substantial aid to Africa under a win-win cooperation. As expressed at the G-20 FM meeting in Bonn on February 16 of this year, Chinese high ranking official reconfirmed that China would carry on enhancing strategic relationship with Africa. As always, China would abide by the key tenet which aims to develop the local, regional and international economics in light of “Africa’s initiative, Africa’s consent and Africa’s first”. Due to this, China’s search for strategic partners in Africa is an indispensable part of Beijing’s global strategic thinking.

Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.

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