Charting Africa’s Chinese Future

Image: China
Image: China

The extravagance on show at the China-Africa Summit in Beijing last November marked the beginning of a consolidation of ties between the two regions.

The world watched in wonder as Chinese and Africa leaders celebrated their ever-deepening economic and political ties against the backdrop of Chinese acrobatic troupes, African drumming exhibitions, the piercing wail of Peking opera and panoramic tourist posters of the African savannah.

A three year plan was agreed to by delegates aimed at cementing commercial and political ties in the form of a strategic partnership. Closer consultation at the UN, WTO and other multilateral settings was seconded by promises of technical assistance and investment in African agricultural development, an expansion of training programmes for Africans and greater support for health and educational services. For their own part, the Chinese leadership announced an array of explicit commitments including provisions for US$5 billion in loans and credits, the doubling of its development assistance by 2009 and an increase in trade volumes to US$100 billion by 2010. And on the margins of the Summit, but by no means peripheral to it, was a gathering of Chinese and African businessmen and government officials who signed a host of deals reportedly worth US$2 billion. One year later, after the plenary session’s declaration of friendship and the chorus of toasts celebrating hundreds of business deals have faded into memory, how has the China-Africa relationship fared?

What is clear is that the challenges of consolidation are making themselves apparent, reflecting a new assertiveness from Africa as well as a tangible sense in Beijing of the complexities of managing relations on the continent. Indeed, within a few days of the Summit, South African President Thabo Mbeki had cautioned fellow Africans that economic ties with China were taking on aspects of a colonial relationship. Concerns arising from the structure of this strategic partnership, which was framed around bilateral ties rather than taking into account the longstanding commitment to economic and political regionalism embodied most recently in the formation of the African Union, were voiced around the continent. And, perhaps most worrisome of all for authorities in Beijing, was the continuing fallout from events in Zambia and Sudan which, in turn, threatened to tarnish China’s reputation as a development partner and its bona fides as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the international system.

At the same time, the Chinese were not to be deterred in their march into Africa. Determined to face down the newly critical discourse, President Hu Jintao embarked on a visit to key African states in February 2007 where he denied that China had colonialist intentions, underlined its commitment to supporting African regionalism, chastised the Chinese business community for ignoring local laws and rolled out the first of a series of proposed Economic Co-operation Zones in Zambia. In Sudan, Hu treaded a diplomatic tightrope, bringing pressure to bear on the regime in Khartoum to allow a joint AU-UN peacekeeping force into conflict-ridden Darfur while underscoring China’s overall support and economic interests in the country. In May, Shanghai hosted the African Development Bank’s annual meeting and another commitment to provide US$20 billion in Chinese loans and investment deals was made public. Meanwhile, the torrid pace of Chinese investment into Africa continued without respite, with the announcement of US$5 billion investment and aid package in Katanga in September and the recent purchase of a 20% stake in a leading South African bank with great exposure across the continent.

Still the obstacles to closer collaboration have become more evident throughout the year, as highlighted by the cancellation of Hu’s visit to the Copperbelt for fear of protests, the Angolan government summarily cancelled the multi-million dollar rehabilitation of the oil refinery project in Lobito and the killing of nine Chinese oil workers in southern Ethiopia. Beyond the concerns surrounding cases like that of Zambia’s Chambishi mine, where poor safety and low wages have led to miners’ deaths, there are some longstanding issues that are set to shape Chinese-African relations in the future. These include the very real fear of Africa’s deindustrialisation in the face of Chinese manufacturing capacity, erasing decades of development gains. Equally, Africans rightly fret over Beijing’s propensity to forge close ties with pariah regimes or embark on dubious infrastructure projects with negative social and environmental consequences. Finally, while the relationship has been forged by elites up till now, the steady flow of Chinese small businesses and migrants into the continent suggests that neither Beijing nor host governments will be able to influence public perceptions as easily. So what are the prospects for achieving a consolidation of Chinese-African ties envisaged at Beijing last year?

Four images of China are set to shape future ties with the African continent and, with that, the prospects for a deeper strategic relationship:

o China as the new face of globalisation

China’s phenomenal growth and the ability of its firms to out bid, out supply and out produce any African companies make it an apparently unstoppable juggernaut in capturing market share on the continent. Coupled to that is the productivity of its workforce in Africa and liberal use of its US$1 trillion of foreign reserves to secure economic interests, all of which place it as the new face of globalisation in Africa. African governments, businesses and trade unions are increasingly focusing on devising strategies to contend with this new situation.

o China as development model

China’s willingness to experiment in defiance of dogma, be it Maoist or neo-liberal, has been the hallmark of its approach to development. As the call for the importation of the ‘Chinese development model’ grows, it is becoming clear to Africans that they can best apply the experience of ‘opening and reform’ by adopting Beijing’s policy of critical engagement with foreign investors – including China – to ensure that their inputs subscribe to the continent’s development needs.

o China as mirror for the West

Another measure of the impact that China’s foray into Africa is having can be found in the insecurities on display by the continent’s traditional Western partners. In this sense, China’s global rise and thrust into Africa holds up a mirror to the West which suggests that its own standing as global leader is under review. Moreover, some aspects of China’s engagement casts an unflattering light on the bevy of unrealised Western promises and failed initiatives which have been characteristic of its interventionist approach to the continent. African management of this dynamic to its advantage will be crucial to the health of its political ties with both China and the West.

o China as responsible stakeholder

Close ties with Africa’s pariah states is now recognised in Beijing as coming at a cost to its international reputation, not the least because of the ‘Genocide Olympics’ campaign in the West. Moreover, as the principal form of Chinese engagement has been through fostering close ties with African governing elites, Beijing’s ability to maintain links with these elites without becoming a factor in domestic politics of the African host country is increasingly difficult. Indeed, this is already the case in places as diverse as Sudan, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Nigeria At the same time, the fact that Chinese provinces and municipalities are set to have a greater economic role in Africa – and given their chequered history of adherence to rule of law, labour and environmental standards – holds serious implications for Beijing. Their wilful pursuit of the narrowest form of self-interest can harm the forging of closer ties by replicating the centre-provincial tensions that bedevil Chinese authorities at home.

China’s engagement in Africa has evolved rapidly from its roots in anti-colonial solidarity to that of a major force on the continent. With the line between development partner, economic threat and partner of pariahs increasingly difficult to discern for some in Africa, the task of consolidating this ‘mutually beneficial’ relationship is indeed daunting. Africa’s future, like that of the world, is most certainly Chinese but keeping these relations on a constructive path is a task that will occupy this next phase of engagement.