Despite concerns raised by few Western countries, such as Britain and the U.S., over the political, economic and military roles that China has been playing in Africa, China is successful in making inroads to Africa with reciprocal warm gestures from many African countries. The very visible progress in political, economic and diplomatic cooperation between Africa and China is a sheer showcase of this reality.
Why Africa is important to China?
China’s vast economy, which is the second largest economy in the world, requires huge raw materials and energy resources. As the Middle East has become a too chaotic supplier-destination for energy, China found African countries as the ideal supplier-destinations for much needed natural resources, such as oil, minerals, timber and cotton. Moreover, African markets are seriously attractive to any export-oriented industrial economy like China because of Africa’s large population (around 1.1 billion), who are potential consumers. For China, African fast-growing markets are ideal for immediate export of cheap manufactured goods that China is best in making, and also ideal for the future export of high-end products and services, towards which China is slowly moving.
Africa could be instrumental for China in its counter to the U.S.’s “pivot to Asia,” which is a diplomatic, economic and strategic offensive aimed at undermining Chinese influence and preparing for war. “One Belt, One Road” strategy, something that needs no introduction, is China’s response to U.S.’s pivot to Asia. China is seeking to include Africa within its “One Belt, One Road” strategy aimed at more closely integrating Europe and Asia via land and maritime infrastructure.
Why Africa prefers China over others?
China has adopted a flexible approach with regard to the African resource market under the “Beijing Consensus”: (i) non-interference, (ii) infrastructural development, (iii) friendship and respect (for African leaders, people and sovereignty) and (iv) Chinese model of development (operating in Africa under the influence of China’s own development history, which prioritizes “economic development” over other progress). Therefore, Beijing Consensus, according to many African intellectuals, portrays China’s intension of maintaining a strict respect for African sovereignty and China’s non-interference approach to internal issues of African countries. In line with this policy, China helps Africa with loans and infrastructure building projects without any political strings attached about democracy or transparency. Such Chinese non-interference approach gives African countries enough flexibility to work for immediate economic development.
Efforts have been made toward stronger economic integration in Africa. In 2002, the African Union was formally commenced in order to accelerate socio-economic integration and promote peace, security and stability in Africa. China has been continuously voicing in favour of such African integration in almost all China-Africa summits, symbolizing China’s intension to see Africa together as one.
China invests in the construction of African infrastructures, such as roads, railways, dams, ports and airports. Such projects create massive employments for hundreds of thousands of Africans. These (creating jobs and building a developed Africa) are very visible benefits that appeal the African people of all ages and of all walks of life towards mandating for further Chinese involvement in Africa.
The U.S., France and Britain are China’s main rivals in Africa. France and Britain were once the largest trading partners of Africa. However, from 2008 onwards, China remained Africa’s largest trading partner, while the U.S. remained the second largest. China has been giving aid to more African countries than the U.S.
China wants to move away from its low-end products manufacturing trend to high-end products. China intends to build up the low-end industrialization capacities in other countries, helping Chinese companies in their attempts to “go global” as they set up factories in other countries. And, industrialization is just the obsession that many African countries are craving for. Therefore, it seems China’s plan to build up the low-end industrialization capacities in other countries and African countries’ desire for industrialization coincides with each other, making China and Africa the ideal-most partners for each other in this regard. Chinese Foreign Minister regarded China as a most desirable and reliable long-term partner for Africa to achieve industrialization.
China has been increasing cooperation and exchanges with Africa on the cultural front, particularly in the media and education arena. Over the last decade, China extended its media presence across all major press and electronic media in Africa. The famous CCTV News Channel and China Daily have dedicated Africa editions. Africa hosts a number of Chinese cultural centres and 46 Confucius Institutes, which focuses on the promotion of the Chinese language and culture. Health care development and medical assistance have been one of the main successful areas of cooperation.
Military cooperation between China and Africa goes back to the Cold War period when China backed a number of African liberation movements, while post-cold war era witnessed a military relation based on economic interests rather than ideology. China has been sending troops to Africa to participate in peacekeeping and pledged to increase its support for the peacekeepers in Africa. Apart from peacemaking, China provides military training and equipment to a number of African countries. An increasing number of African countries have shifted their source of supply of defence hardware from traditional providers to China.
The need to protect China’s increased investments in Africa have driven China to adopt new diplomatic and military initiatives in order to try to resolve unrest in countries like South Sudan and Mali. China’s security assistance to the African Union and national militaries of many African countries is in part designed to boost their capacity to counter threats (such as attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali) to their economic interests from conventional and non-conventional armed forces. China’s first ever overseas military facility is planned to be hosted in Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa.
The ministerial meeting in China in October 2000 was the first collective dialogue held between China and African countries, establishing the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in order to strengthen alliances, sign contracts and make important announcements. Since then Chinese and African partners meet every three years for the summit of FOCAC, or otherwise known as China-Africa Summit.
During the 2015’s summit, which was held in South Africa, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion over a three-year deal in loans and assistance to the African countries. On the media front, Xi said that China would provide training for 1,000 African media practitioners each year, and would set up satellite TV programs in 10,000 African villages. Xi also pledged to provide funding for 200 African scholars and 500 African students to visit China each year. China would also provide 2,000 education places and 30,000 government scholarship places for Africa. China would establish regional vocational education centres and colleges, train 200,000 technicians and provide the Africans with 40,000 training opportunities in China. Xi pledged some 200 poverty reduction projects, 30 teams of agricultural experts and a limited amount of debt relief to some of the poorest African countries.
As part of China-Africa peace and security program, Xi pledged that China will provide $60 million in free assistance to the African Union to build and maintain its army, both its regular army and crisis response, as well as support UN peacekeeping in Africa. China’s new Africa policy paper pledged more military cooperation, including technological cooperation, joint exercises, personnel training and intelligence sharing. China’s goal is to build up African capabilities so that the African countries – as well as organizations like the African Union – can ensure their own stability. However, Xi made it clear that through increasing economic and military cooperation, China does not intend to colonize Africa. President Xi clearly stated that China strongly believes that Africa belongs to the African people and African problems should be handled by the African people. Xi also clarified that China’s latest military efforts are to combat militancy, and not to engage itself in the local African conflicts.
Criticisms against China
There are widespread accusations that China is a neo-colonial power in Africa. And that China-Africa cooperation have given rise to human rights abuses. Other criticisms are economic in nature. There are accusations that African workers face ill-treatment and poor pay by Chinese companies and that the influx of Chinese workers take away local jobs. The criticisms go further in alleging that African markets are harmed by low-cost Chinese-made products, which put great competitive pressure on local industries and businesses. Some argue that China’s involvement in Africa currently benefits primarily the African elites, and not the general Africans.
However, according to several African intellectual corners, these aforementioned accusations are part of a larger propaganda originating from the Western corners in order to undermine China’s influence over Africa. According to such African sources, African culture has already been plagued by centuries of Western domination and the imperial economic and social structures.
Unlike Western economic giants, China made development – not pursuing democracy and transparency – the sole model for its partnership with Africa. With such a flexible approach, China seems to anticipate that African governments would find China a better choice over the West with regard to long term partnership.
China continues to expand its influence in Africa on diplomatic, cultural and commercial fronts, while working to secure and stabilize Africa for China’s own long term gains.
It is clearly in the interest of Africa to avoid full alignment with either of China and the West, but to play one side against the other — which might work to decrease raw material prices and to earn other leverages. In this way, it would be well guaranteed that negotiating power remains in the hands of local African policy makers, ensuring end of all sort of exploitation against Africa.