Leveraging the Dragon: Toward ‘An Africa That Can Say No’

Image: Flickr, Osrin
Image: Flickr, Osrin

The rapidly growing engagement between China and Africa requires a greater balance of the economic and strategic interests of both sides.

CHINA’S renewed engagement with Africa, coming as it has on the heels of years of global neglect of the continent, has been welcomed enthusiastically in capitals across Africa. In the span of less than a decade trade between China and Africa has increased from $10 billion in 2000 to $18 billion in 2003. China has expended significant resources in foreign assistance toward African states, forgiven African debt and embarked on an unprecedented peacekeeping mission in Liberia – activities that are all bolstered by a steady stream of high-profile diplomatic and commercial missions.

While the drive to secure energy resources is at the heart of Beijing’s renewed engagement with Africa, there is nonetheless a growing depth and complexity to relations that bears closer analysis. In particular, China’s role in the Sudan crisis, where it has supported a military regime accused of perpetrating a humanitarian crisis has cast a new and, for many, disturbing light on Chinese activities in Africa. [The United Nations released an investigation report on 1 February 2005 on the situation in Darfur.]

The need on the part of Africans to understand China and its motives for engagement with the continent is now greater than ever before.

China’s phenomenal transformation beginning in the late 1970s from an impoverished country periodically seized by ideological campaigns that served only to further cripple development, to a strong, self-confident emerging super-power, owes much to its reformist leader, Deng Xiaoping. Deng’s admonishments, listed below, were crucial signposts in supporting the shift away from ideology to pragmatism that was to lay the foundation for the tremendous revolutionary effects of market-driven development. They offer Africa some salutary guidelines for structuring its own maturing relationship with China.

Seek truth from facts

Just as China’s leadership on the eve of economic reform recognised that there could be no step forward without a cold-calculated analysis of the facts of their situation, so, too, African leaders need to assess their relationship with China on the basis of reality. The emphasis on resource extraction as the core of China’s economic concerns, and the accompanying needs of Chinese industry, should be recognised as an opportunity for accountable African governments to arrange for favourable terms on a range of issues.

It should be standard practice for African states to insist, as they do with arms procurements, that foreign investors put together a package of ‘tie-in’ projects that meet local development goals. These might include training programmes, for instance, in addition to the financial requirements of investment in the energy sector. Cases such as Angola’s request to China for a $2 billion loan (which Luanda was reluctant to seek from the International Monetary Fund), which formed a part of China’s successful ‘dark horse’ bid for a share in Angola’s oil, serve as an example of Beijing’s willingness to overlook poor fiscal management in its pursuit of African resources. Chinese investment, especially in moribund sectors of African economies such as agro-processing in Namibia or cotton production in Zambia, should continue to be welcomed, especially against the backdrop of Western neglect.

But it must be recognised that, just as China insisted in the past on joint ventures as the basis of foreign direct investment into its coastal enclaves, African countries should make such measures a standard requirement of foreign investment in their economies, too. Technology transfer and the fostering of local management skills all need to be features of any investment (be it from China or elsewhere). Furthermore, those factories that have been set up to take advantage of the provisions of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which opens US markets to specific African goods, such as in Lesotho and Kenya, and have notoriously poor records in labour and environmental protection, need to be made to comply with acceptable international standards.

African leaders need also to recognise that there are important areas where their national interests diverge from Beijing’s. For example, China’s status as a global leader in attracting foreign direct investment is one that competes directly with Africa’s own serious needs for FDI. Concurrently, the opening of African markets to Chinese products – from textiles to steel – threatens, in many cases, the very existence of local industry and labour markets. China enjoys a significant advantageous trade imbalance with its top trading partners on the continent – including South Africa, Nigeria and Sudan – resulting from the commodity base of exchange as well as an excess capacity of Chinese industry and its willingness to export goods through third countries to obtain market share in Africa. African countries need to actively correct this.

In the case of South Africa, the trade deficit with China has grown from $24 million in 1992 to $400 million in 2001 on the back of a sharp increase in exports of manufactured goods. Gaining better access to the Chinese market for African products through preferential trade agreements is crucial to addressing this problem, as is closing off unfair competition practices such as subsidisation of exports.

The reliance upon imported Chinese labour for infrastructure projects, and even some manufacturing ventures, seems contrary to the needs of economies where unemployment is a serious problem. Beijing’s close relations with African regimes with questionable records in governance and human rights – such as Zimbabwe, Sudan and Algeria – although a practice that Western governments have too often engaged in as well, does not serve the interests of democratic societies in Africa. While stability is recognised to be a prerequisite for development, the proximity of Beijing or its parastatals to African governments that systematically abuse rights of its citizens only compromises the achievement of this long-term aim. After all, China need only hearken back to its own experience of decades of banditry before 1949 to recognise the devastating effects that externally fostered conflict can have upon society and the prospects for economic development.

It doesn’t matter what colour the cat is, as long as it catches mice

The tyranny of ideology over practical experience long served to stymie development in China. By unburdening Chinese society of ideological imperatives, the leadership under Deng was able to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of its people. Africa, when approaching China, needs to reorient the very premise of its engagement with China from a residual liberation paradigm, where the two shared ideological aims, to a contemporary economic paradigm, where Africa needs to consciously promote and preserve its interests. The starting point for this is to recognise the global context of China’s ‘peaceful rise’, as Wen Jiaobao has characterised China’s emergence as a super-power.

China’s relations with Africa represent only one of a number of alternative strategies of expansion across the developing world pursued by Beijing outside of its traditional regional ambit, ranging from new ties with Central Asian and the Gulf states to enriching old relationships in Latin America, all of which are predicated upon the twin pillars of economic need and embedding Chinese concerns within the framework of a coalition of the South. Given China’s economic standing, the asymmetrical nature of these relationships with the developing world, coupled to the drive to achieve super-power status [reflected in conflict between the classic ‘three worlds’ position of Chinese foreign policy and the newly annunciated ‘peaceful rise’ debate] means that the impulse to be seen as a leader of developing-country interests too often drifts into the logic of Chinese dominance.

Despite their continent’s obvious weaknesses, African states need not assume a secondary position in their dealings with China. As other states in other developing regions have shown, astute and active diplomacy can reap real concessions from Beijing to local interests. For instance, China’s economic and political relations with Latin America have soared in the past decade at rates that emulate the recent experience in Africa. But unlike Africa, countries like Brazil, Chile, Venezuela and Mexico – all middle-income countries with important energy resources and markets – have experienced significant trade balances in their favour. Bilateral agreements that give preferential access to key sectors or products are part of the explanation for this situation.

Another factor, however, is the critical reading Latin Americans bring to Chinese economic engagement with their region. For example, in capital-starved Argentina where a number of Chinese investments were mooted by Hu Jintao’s entourage, local industry and labour analysts have voiced concerns about China’s impact on local labour markets. Deals that focus on provision of raw material alone, these critics argue, threaten to reverse the gains achieved through value-added production of manufactured goods.

The rejection by Brazilian industry of the bi-lateral free trade agreement with China, based upon the belief that this will only serve to corrode their existing production capacity in the face of cheaper Chinese imports, should be understood not as a rejection of engagement with China but of a particular (undesirable) set of terms of that engagement.

The construction of a coalition of interests among developing countries, with China as a natural leader, is a key feature of China’s embrace of multilateralism. African votes are critical to China’s foreign economic diplomacy in a range of international fora, but are too often diluted through bilateral or ad hoc practices pursued by African governments. Better co-ordination, arguably best achieved through the China-Africa Co-operation Forum, would result in concrete gains for both sides.

We should do more and engage less in empty talk

Interest-based relationships must be measured in terms of how and what they deliver. The Chinese government, contrary to the analysis of many nay-sayers, has been an enthusiastic supporter of deepening economic and political ties with the African continent. Through its promotion of the China Africa Co-operation Forum and high-profile development assistance projects in places like the Central African Republic, Eritrea and Uganda, as well as its commitment to write-off bilateral debt with African countries, the political basis for furthering economic engagement has steadily been established.

But it is incumbent upon responsible African leaders – and, perhaps most importantly, African civil society – to call Beijing to account when it comes up short in fulfilling its promise of mutually beneficial co-operation. For example, if China, as it has often said, wishes to represent developing-country interests in multilateral arenas like the World Trade Organisation, then it should be expected to adopt and support positions that reflect the needs and concerns of the African continent. In particular, Beijing should recognise that dumping practices that are wide-spread across the continent constitute a contravention of WTO rules, and that, with the exception of South Africa, African countries lack the requisite technical and monetary resources to bring this before the organisation’s dispute resolution mechanism.

Beijing should, therefore, in the spirit of co-operation, undertake to resolve this matter unilaterally. If it wishes to promote a free-trade agreement with states in Southern Africa, then discernible gains for African industry, labour and consumers must be built into any agreement. If it wishes to promote peace, as it has laudably demonstrated in Liberia through its peacekeeping mission, Beijing needs to rein in its own arms industry, which has been accused of fuelling conflict across the continent.

The Beijing Declaration, which was issued at the first China-Africa Co-operation Forum in October 2000, explicitly stated that the Chinese would strengthen their co-operation in stopping the illegal production, circulation and trafficking of small arms and light weapons in Africa. Support for Burundian factions, the appearance of Chinese light arms in the Congo, as well as land mines in other regions, however, suggest that more effort needs to be made by Chinese authorities to fulfil this promise.

China, by virtue of its history of external exploitation, disastrous economic experimentation in the early years of independence and, more recently, rapid market-based development, is in a unique position to understand the challenges facing Africa today. This position translates into a set of implicit responsibilities toward the continent that African leaders should help the Chinese government to recognise as imperative to building a sustainable relationship.

African leaders should mobilise the China-Africa Co-operation Forum as the key multilateral setting in which relations can be deepened on a systematic and equitable continent-wide basis. In particular, the Forum should move beyond the abstract principles of solidarity and into the specifics of attaining mutual benefit from the relationship in strategic spheres such as development (trade, investment and aid) and security (conflict resolution, peacekeeping and arms sales). A code of conduct, structured to reflect the principles contained within Nepad and the African Union, should be considered to govern the different dimensions of the relationship. It could be bolstered by an annual review process, modelled on the African Peer Review Mechanism, that would measure compliance with the commitments made through the Forum.

Concurrently, a parallel civil society forum – similar to that introduced into the Non-Aligned Movement summits by South Africa, but inclusive of business, labour and consumer groups – should be created so as to bring together non-governmental organisations from both regions to share ideas and lobby governments.

Through this comprehensive approach, the basis for a significant deepening of ties between the Chinese and African peoples would be put into place.

Crossing the river by feeling one stone at a time

Like the ‘self-strengthening’ nationalist movement of the late Qing dynasty, in which Chinese students were sent abroad to learn technical and management skills from the West, Africa is in the midst of its own concerted effort to draw together the cumulative resources and skills of its people to further development. In this regard, the Nepad process, coupled to the revitalised African Union, actively grafts some of the insights of global ‘best practice’ in economic and political governance to the African context. China has said it respects Africa’s desire to make its own way in the world and would do everything in its power to ensure that these initiatives are successful. The AU decision to promote peacekeepers in Darfur represents a necessary step in realising African ‘self strengthening.’ African leaders should, therefore, ask for unambiguous Chinese support.

Africa’s relations with China need to grow incrementally, step by step, if engagement is to be built upon the basis of a solid and enduring foundation. The heady atmosphere of mutual discovery that characterised the first decade of renewed relations, while important in delineating ideals and ambitions on the part of the two regions, is not a sufficient basis upon which to build long term co-operation. Following Deng’s words, each aspect of this promising relationship needs to be measured carefully against the potential gains and losses to Africa. In so doing, leaders on both ends of the equation will ultimately give substance to a shared sense of destiny so often described in the flowery language of diplomatic communiqués.

Deeper engagement with China is both desirable and inevitable for Africa. In this context, the ‘Africa that can say no’, to paraphrase a famous book that inspired first Japanese and later Chinese economic nationalism, is just as important in forging a real partnership with China as is the uncritical embrace of all things Chinese that we see happening across the continent today. Only then will Africa begin to realise the inherent possibilities of all aspects of the remarkable rise of China.