China in Africa: Devil or Angel?

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In Malawi
Feb 23rd, 2014
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Created on Saturday, 22 February 2014 21:18 Written by Luo Jianbo and Zhang Xiaomin

Chinese FlagChina has never denied that its Africa policy has its own strategic interests. However, one of the most outstanding features of China’s policy is its aspiration to promote South-South cooperation and to achieve the renaissance of Asia and Africa. Unlike the former colonial masters, China’s engagement provides Africa with new development opportunities

The Chinese government has always attached great emphasis on developing relations with African countries and it is also fully confident that the China-Africa relationship will enjoy a promising future. During his visit to three African countries in March 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that China and African countries have always been ‘a community of shared destines’ and the essence of the bilateral relationship exists in its mutually beneficial and win-win cooperation. 

However, too many doubts have been raised in the international community over the nature of China-Africa cooperation. As early as 2006, then Britain foreign secretary, Jack Straw, remarked that what China was doing in Africa was much the same as what Britain had done 150 years before. [2] Five years later, Hillary Clinton, the then American Secretary of the State, insinuated in Zambia in June 2011 that China’s presence in Africa was a new colonialism. [3] During a recent visit to Africa in January 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said China’s aid to Africa was motivated by a desire to secure access to African natural resources. [4] This, to some degree, indicates that some westerners tend to interpret China’s Africa policy and Sino-African relations from the perspective of self-righteous moralists.

Speaking of China’s role in Africa’s development, is China a devil or an angel? As is well known, a nation’s foreign policy always serves its national interest. China is no exception. China has never denied that its African policy has its own strategic interests. However, one of the most outstanding features of China’s African policy from the very beginning is its aspiration to promote the South-South cooperation and to achieve the renaissance of Asia and Africa. Of course, there exist no doubt some problems in China-Africa cooperation, such as trade imbalance, lack of corporate social responsibility of some Chinese enterprises and so on. But, the fact is that China’s engagement in Africa provides Africa with new development opportunities and promotes Africa to integrate into the global system in a more favorable way. 

CHINA’S STRATEGIC INTERESTS IN AFRICA

First of all, China’s economic development benefits from China-Africa economic and trade cooperation. According to statistics, the bilateral trade rocketed from $10.6 billion in 2000 to $198.4 billion in 2012. Since 2009, China has been the largest trade partner of Africa, surpassing the United States and Europe. China’s outward foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in Africa increased fast from $400.9 million in 2003 to $21.2 billion in 2012. China began to import crude oil from Africa in 1992. The amount increased from 500 thousand tons in 1992 to 64.69 million tons in 2010. In recent years, crude oil from Africa accounted for 23.9% of the total of China’s imported oil. China’s economic interest in Africa lies in many fields, while the most important and urgent is to realize the diversification of its import of resources and energy. Like any other big power which has its own definite overseas energy interest and energy strategy, China doesn’t need to skirt around its energy demand from Africa. When facing Western criticism of China-Africa energy cooperation, China should not feel stampeded or panic. 

The China-Africa economic cooperation will also help Chinese enterprises to accumulate the experience they need in order to better engage with globalization, which is part of the significance of China’s enterprises going abroad to Africa. Through investment, trade and project in Africa, the Chinese enterprises can get precious experience of overseas market development, business management, capital operation, risk aversion and ways of dealing with local government, the public and the international community. Chinese enterprises in Africa are confronted with great pressures and criticism in respect of environment protection and labor-capital problem, which, as a result, promote Chinese enterprises to behave themselves, enhance their corporate social responsibility and gain more knowledge of rules of international economy.

Above all, China-Africa cooperation is of great strategic importance. In history, African countries have given China many extremely valuable diplomatic supports which could be manifested at least by three important events. First, African countries supported China to regain its legal seat in the UN in 1970s. Just with the help of African countries, China was able to break the diplomatic plight, returned to the international community and won world respect. Second, after the 1989 political turmoil, African countries again helped China to break the western blockade. In August and September that year, Qian Qichen, the then Chinese Foreign Minister, visited 8 African countries at their invitation. At the same time, the first foreign leader, the first government leader and the first foreign minister to visit China under western pressure were all from Africa. ‘They expressed that they visited China at that special time just to show the world that Africa was China’s real friend even when China was at the toughest moment.’ [5] In response to Africa’s support and help, the Chinese foreign ministers would make its first visit early every year to Africa ever since 1991. Third, on Taiwan issue, most African countries are staunch supporters to “one China” principle. History shows that whenever China experiences deteriorating international relations, especially with the West, Africa becomes an important factor in China’s diplomatic strategy. In fact, it can be said that if developing countries are the foundation of China’s foreign policies, Africa remains the most core part of that foundation. 

The first half of the 21st century is a critical period for China’s peaceful development. China desires for a stable domestic and international environment and expects to properly handle relations with other countries. China asserts time and again that it will not challenge any other nation’s interest and the current existing international order. While at the same time, China also hopes that other countries can respect its own core interest, the most important of which are the national unification and political stability. Some western countries on the one hand welcome and accept China to integrate into the international system, while on the other hand, they stick to the cold war ideology and mentality and put more emphasis on precaution and containment when dealing with fast rising China. Against this background, China needs to strengthen its relations with African countries and other developing countries in order to achieve its own strategic goals. China can optimize its relations with the whole of Africa to counter those few Western countries which try to prevent China from rising so as to enhance its own international standing and create a better and favorable situation for itself. 

In China’s overall diplomatic strategy, Africa remains a very important strategic pivot which is vital for China to develop its relations with the rest of the world. Currently, the China-Africa relations focus more on economic cooperation than political cooperation. However, the political mutual trust is still the important content of China-Africa new-type strategic partnership in the 21st century. China will not engage in military alliances, but China also needs political partners.

CHINA-AFRICA RELATIONSHIP AND CHINA’S INTERNATIONAL RESPONSIBILITY 

It is no secret that China’s African policy has its own strategic intention, such as seeking for political support from Africa, obtaining access to strategic resources, suppressing Taiwan’s so-called ‘diplomatic space’ in Africa and so on. However, there is an idealism or mission or aspiration beyond the national interest from the very beginning in China’s African policy, which, unfortunately, is always overlooked, suspected or even denied by some foreign scholars. 

The birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 marked the Chinese people’s liberation and political independence in a true sense. This process began earlier in China than in most African countries. Due to the hostility of Western countries towards the new People’s Republic of China – the same experience shared with the other Asian and African countries of being invaded by the West – and the distinct internationalism championed by the Chinese communist party, the new China from the very beginning regarded itself as a member of those oppressed nations and newly independent nations, and spared no efforts to fight together with those oppressed nations against the invasion of imperialism. In 1960s and 1970s, China provided foreign aid even beyond its own capability to African countries, including some facilities China itself was even reluctant to use. China rallied the strength of the whole nation to help Tanzania and Zambia build the 1,860-kilometer long Tazara Railway, which was the most outstanding example of supporting African countries’ national independence movement during that period. Frankly speaking, the absolute amount of China’s aid to Africa was not so large at that time, but China gave whatever it could afford at a time when its own economic foundation was fragile and weak or even when China itself was experiencing extremely great economic difficulties. This showed with no doubt China’s sympathy and support for the cause of independence and development of African countries.

At present, China is gradually becoming a developed country, at the same time it still aspires to try its best to help African countries realize their development dream. China is the largest developing country and its future foreign relations will be based on strategic partnership with African and other developing countries, which determine China’s growing global responsibilities. China should not only work along with other major powers to maintain the stability of the world financial order, fight against terrorism, prevent the global warming, most important, China should push forward the poverty reduction and development of developing countries, promote a more balanced world economy and the solution to south-north problem, and help those developing countries in turmoil to realize political stability. Based on its own identity and national interests, China’s global responsibility should focus more on developing countries which constitute the biggest part of the international community. Just as President Xi Jinping remarked when he was visiting Africa, ‘Under the new circumstance, China-Africa relations have become more important with greater common interests, instead of less important with fewer common interests. China will intensify, not weaken its efforts to expand relations with Africa’. [6]

This pledge can be best manifested by China’s efforts to propel Africa’s development through investment, trade and foreign aid. To enhance Africa’s capability of self-development and improve African people’s life, current China-Africa cooperation, in line with the top priorities of development listed by the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), focuses mainly on the fields of infrastructures, medicine and public health, technology transfer and training as well as development of human resources. 

It can’t be denied that China-Africa economic cooperation has gained great achievements: China’s commodities are suitable for the consumption level of common African people and the quality of their lives has been improved; China’s investment in Africa has spurred Africa’s economic development and especially their infrastructure building; the prices of African raw materials have been raised in line with the increasing demand by China, which is beneficial to Africa. It is no exaggeration that China-Africa cooperation has benefited Africa a great deal; otherwise, the cooperation would have not developed so fast in the past years. Well-informed African people in the majority welcome China’s trade with Africa and place great expectation on China-Africa relations. From an objective perspective, the active African market is also beneficial to Western countries. 

Speaking about European and American foreign aid to Africa, it is our view that there is more or less a sense of atonement for the crimes they committed to African people in the past. In history, they either colonized Africa or conducted the slavery business in Africa or both. On the contrary, China’s foreign aid to Africa as well as its economic cooperation with Africa displays a much more sense of mission, for it has no historical burden related to Africa. In Chinese traditional culture, there is the concept of ‘Datong’(大同), literally meaning, ‘great harmony’. Put in modern words, it means the common prosperity all over the world and the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of all the human beings and all the nations. For the time being, China is not a fully developed country yet and it still stresses the need to concentrate its efforts its own domestic development. However, the more China further develops, the more its sense of global responsibility will be enhanced. And Africa will be the place where China’s global responsibility will be best witnessed. 

In essence, the contemporary China-Africa relationship is a brand-new reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship which can promote the common development of both sides. It is a new type of strategic partnership based on political equality, characterized by mutual benefit and aimed at common development. It reflects China’s good will to advocate common prosperity and long-lasting peace of the whole world. China successively put forward well-known concepts such as ‘peaceful development’ and ‘harmonious world’, which demonstrates that China, sticking to a peaceful development path, will continue to view the relationship between its own international responsibility and the outside world in a broad vision of cosmopolitanism. In this sense, it is reasonably sound to say that promoting Africa’s common development will be an important part of China’s foreign policy in the new era. China’s development not only brings good to itself, but also benefits Africa and the rest of the world. 

THE ADJUSTMENT OF CHINA’S AFRICAN POLICY IN THE FUTURE

It is during the past ten years that China-Africa economic and trade cooperation witnessed its fastest development, but at the same time, it was also a period when most problems arose. For example, China maintained trade surplus to most African countries except those rich in minerals, some Chinese products were shoddy goods, and there happened some labor-capital disputes in some Chinese enterprises in Africa and so on. The Chinese government has shown a great concern about all these problems and is figuring out ways to tackle them.

To solve the problem of trade surplus to some African resource-poor countries, since 2005, China has decided to generally grant zero-tariff treatment to some commodities from the least developed countries (LDCs) in Africa. By July 2010, African commodities entitled to zero-tariff treatment had covered more than 4,700 taxable items. [7] To enhance the African countries’ production capacity and ability to earn foreign exchange through export, China has established economic and trade cooperation zones in Zambia, Mauritius, Nigeria, Egypt and Ethiopia. Whenever visiting Africa, Chinese leaders always meet with the personnel in charge of Chinese enterprises and require them to fulfill corporate social responsibility and take into consideration the long-run development of local areas. The Ministry of Commerce, the Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Customs have also issued related policies to enhance supervision over Chinese enterprises and products. All these measures and policies may take time to take effect. The Chinese government still needs to improve related policies, regulations and measures of supervision. Chinese enterprises also need, as soon as possible, to acquire the knowledge of global rules, regulations and standards, to carry out their social responsibilities and gradually improve their enterprises’ image.

In the long run, China should contribute more to Africa’s development while emphasizing the mutually beneficial and win-win characteristics of the China-Africa cooperation. Since African countries’ industrial development capacity is weaker than China’s and are in an inferior competitive position in the globalized economy based on market principles, China should take particular care of Africa’s development, provide more help and benefits to Africa in the course of their bilateral economic cooperation. It can’t only stress its own economic gains through cooperation; instead, it must strive for the common development hand in hand with African countries. Besides, China’s engagement in Africa should answer the call of humanitarianism to help the needy and redress the unjust imbalances. To be a world influential power, China must learn how to help others while achieving its own development. 

With the increasing consciousness of its global responsibility as well as the increasing strategic significance of the China-Africa relationship, China surely will contribute more to Africa’s peace and development. At the same time, African countries are attaching more importance to an all-around cooperation with China so as to promote their own renaissance and balance their traditional relations with western countries. Under such circumstances, we are firmly confident that the China-Africa relationship will have a much brighter future. 

∗ Luo Jianbo is director and professor of Center for African Studies, Party School of Central Committee of CPC. His study covers China-Africa relations, African integration, Africa’s peace and development. Zhang Xiaomin is associate professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. His field covers China-Africa relations and China’s foreign aid.

Tags: China  Africa  Malawi  Chinese motives  


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