Saturday, April 09, 2011

China: China’s Ambiguous Embrace of Africa

Source: ISS
Scott Maxwell, Visiting Researcher,
Arms Management Programme,
ISS Pretoria Office

Between 1417 and 1433, Zheng He, China’s explorer statesman, led three expeditions that reached the east coast of Africa, stopping at the city-states of Mogadishu (present day Somalia) and Malindi (present day Kenya), with some ships going perhaps as far south as Mozambique. His mighty armada was made up of several ‘treasure ships’, which were capable of carrying up to 2 500 tons of cargo back to China. These voyages sought to satisfy China’s growing demand for raw materials by creating intricate trade networks and investment opportunities, as well as to establish the Ming dynasty as the preeminent global power. As it stands today, China’s embrace of Africa is even more far-reaching and has greater impact than Zheng’s missions. This begs the questions: what are the ramifications for Africa of China’s re-emergence as a global power? And how can African policy makers influence China’s Africa Policy?

China’s recent $585-million trade agreement with Zimbabwe, followed quickly by their $700-million loan deal, is a microcosm of the delicate balancing act China does throughout Africa. From one perspective, China’s trade, aid and investments in Africa promise a new path to development; on the other hand, no matter how China frames these deals, it does not conceal the fact that their involvement in Africa primarily serves their own interests, often at the expense of the average African.

Yet, to reach the headwaters of this modern Sino-African power play, it is informative to look at the evolution of China’s ‘Africa Policy’, which has shaped the context of the relationship. In 1953, Premier Zhou Enlai set forth the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, namely mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other`s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence, thus forming the norms for the Chinese government’s dealings with African countries. Before the 1990s, however, China’s relationships with African countries were episodic and no sustained policy was ever implemented by China in Africa.

Chris Alden, in his book China in Africa, points out that China’s relationship with African states changed in 1993, when China transitioned from being a net exporter of oil to a net importer. Alden argues that this triggering event forced the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to recognize, through the form of official policy, that in order to maintain China’s staggering economic development it had to secure sources of energy as well as other critical resources from Africa. To buttress its ‘Africa Policy’, Beijing officially launched its ‘going out’ strategy in 1998, aimed at building strategic economic, political, and cultural alliances in Africa. China had reawakened to Africa; its ambiguous scramble for Africa had begun in earnest.

Today, the clearest evidence of China’s influence in Africa can be seen in trade and investment statistics. According to Chinese customs data, Africa supplies about one-third of China’s oil imports. From 2001 to 2007, China’s total trade with Africa increased 681 per cent (only slightly lower than with Latin America at 687 per cent). In a 2010 article ‘Looking East: Africa’s Newest Investment Partners’, China-Africa expert Deborah Brautigam shows that in 2003 investments in Africa were only 2.6 per cent of China’s total foreign direct investment (FDI) outflow. However, by 2008, China’s $5.5 billion worth of FDI into Africa made up 10 per cent of its total share. Trade and investment in the extractive industries drives China’s relationships in Africa, but defining these emerging partnerships is far from uniform. In fact, Beijing’s generous offers of development aid, its cancellations of debt, and its investments with ‘no strings attached’ are looked upon favourably by many African leaders.

Although China considers its partnerships in Africa to be mutually beneficial, stressing a ‘win-win’ relationship, its policies have proven to be more semantic than meaningful. A case in point of this contrast is the Merowe Dam project that was completed in 2009 by the China International Water and Electric Corporation along a tributary of the Nile River in northern Sudan. The project was hailed as ‘great milestone of [Sudan’s] development’ by president Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. His projection may prove true, but in the interim over 50,000 people were relocated from the fertile Nile valley to a desert location, with the majority of residents never receiving the resettlement packages they were promised. China’s aggressive engagement with Africa has also caused friction elsewhere on the continent. In Zambia, hostilities remain between mine workers and Chinese corporations; while China’s arms’ deals with ‘weak’ states continue to draw the ire of human rights organizations.

For African policy makers, however, there are three broad trends taking place in contemporary China that provide an opportunity to influence China’s policies toward Africa. Firstly, a host of different interest groups, including new media and research institutions, are striving to redefine China’s foreign policy. Appealing to the growing nuances in China’s foreign policy establishment may place pressure on government officials to carefully reassess their engagement with African states. Secondly, China’s foreign policy interests are beginning to conflict with its values, putting stress on China’s strict adherence to the principle of non-interference. In some instances, it may be appropriate for African officials to encourage the implementation of emerging paradigms in China’s foreign policy, such as the concept of ‘conditional interference’, to help formulate a policy beyond ‘non-interference’. Lastly, with Vice President Xi Jinping (a fifth-generation leader) poised to take over as President in 2012 and several sixth-generation leaders moving into high-ranking posts, the political dynamics in China are slowly changing. With Sino-African ties advancing economically, politically and culturally, it is necessary to persuade these new Chinese leaders to address the imbalances in these relationships.

The Zheng He analogy therefore holds true today, for his engagement with African leaders was based on mutual respect and peaceful coexistence – familiar refrains in today’s diplomatic speak. However, although peace and trade were assured, the tribute system of the Ming dynasty was inherently unfair, forcing countries to pay gifts of tribute, usually in the form of investment deals and trade treaties. In current terms, China’s ‘Africa Policy’ must remedy this uneasy balance of principles and interests; and hopefully, African policy makers will hold China accountable to the often-overlooked component of the Five Principles: the principle of mutual benefit.