LETTER TO CHINA: Beijing’s aid to Africa doing its bit to unify the continent

Indeed, if Africa is to have a ‘win-win’ relationship with China, there is an urgent need to engage China through regional organisations and the African Union

AS THE fifth China-Africa summit closed in Beijing, China’s foreign minister was already hailing a successful meeting, one which “forged consensus and enhanced mutual trust”.

Many conference participants on both sides were quite optimistic about the gains that have been made so far through the mechanism of the Ministerial Meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation, which was created in early 2000 to strengthen Sino-African co-operation. But anyone following the proceedings would have noticed a shift in position of many African countries vis-€-vis the ever expanding China-Africa relationship.

Despite trade volumes surpassing $160bn last year, some in Africa are now questioning to what extent this relationship is benefiting the continent. The assertion made by President Jacob Zuma at the forum — that Africa should be wary of unsustainable trade with China — echoes an increasing number of voices from the continent that are scrutinising the Sino-Africa relationship with much more caution than was the case five or 10 years ago.

Mr Zuma’s address pointed out that Africa needed to be cautious with new trade partners given the continent’s past economic experience with Europe. This was an allusion to concerns over neocolonialism, a charge often launched by critics of China.

He further stressed that the trend of having Africa solely supplying raw materials to China was unsustainable, and that there was a growing need for diversification and beneficiation. Although Mr Zuma was quick to reiterate that SA was generally pleased with the nature of the China-Africa relationship, the relatively bold sentiment from the continent’s largest economy and one of China’s largest African trading partners was not lost.

African countries have become more assertive and are now placing greater demands on China, which some view as the bigger beneficiary of the Sino-African relationship. China seems to be listening, and the fact that Premier Wen Jiabao, for instance, reiterated the need for China to clamp down on counterfeit goods being exported to Africa, highlights that perhaps voices from Africa are beginning to make headway.

However, Africa should also not be naïve and assume China would be able to develop a single, coherent policy that addresses a continent of 55 countries, 50 of which maintain diplomatic relations with China.

With each state having a unique history and culture and means of doing business, it is only through greater unification via regional groupings such as the Southern African Development Community and, ultimately, the African Union (AU), that Africa will begin to deal with China on an equal footing.

China has shown willingness to engage with Africa on this level as highlighted by the country’s recent gift of $200m for the AU conference centre in Addis Ababa, honouring its commitment under the previous forum.

Moreover, China’s agreement to provide $95m in aid to the AU in the next three years and the Chinese commerce minister’s statements that China would pay special attention to co-operation with African subregions, particularly in making overall plans on infrastructure construction, are all positive signs.

Last week, China announced a $20bn credit line to the continent over the next three years. Ultimately, Beijing will decide how the funds are to be deployed and, if past allocation is an indicator of future spending, the distribution will most likely be based on Beijing’s priorities and not necessarily on African requirements.

If the $20bn is to be divided among 50 states, the overall benefit may be limited. This is where regional organisations, particularly the AU, have a chance to make a difference.

SA can play a crucial role as the chairman of the AU. Given Mr Zuma’s emphasis on the importance of Chinese funding of continent-wide infrastructure projects such as the North-South Road and Rail Development Corridor, there is reason to be optimistic.

In a way, China is uniting Africa by indirectly driving the continent to agree on demands it wishes to present to China. This will not be an easy task and is bound to take years before the mechanism can be improved. That it is necessary to overcome national interest for the sake of regional and continental development is easier said than done.

African countries, some with economies that are only a fraction of the size of Beijing, will have to realise that solely engaging with China is not necessarily a viable option.

Indeed, if Africa is to have a “win-win” relationship with China, there is an urgent need to engage China through regional organisations and the AU.

• Kobus van der Wath is group MD of The Beijing Axis. He can be reached at kobus@thebeijingaxis.com.

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