Chinese officials, think tank researchers, and representatives of state-owned companies frequently refer to a “win-win” outcome when discussing Chinese-African relations. Most of my interlocutors during visits to Beijing and Shanghai this year sincerely seemed to believe that China and Africa have had, and will continue to have, a mutually beneficial relationship. China and Africa have been trading partners for many centuries. The Chinese Communist Party formed close ties with African liberation movements in the late 1950s. However, its engagements with the continent over the past 10 years have greatly exceeded earlier contact. As the quantity and intensity of these relationships have increased, China has been subjected to the realities of dealing with Africa and has come under criticism for some of its government policies and business practices. So far, China has shown an unusual ability to react constructively and mitigate problems caused by its policies. Indeed, if China continues its deft foreign policy in Africa, popular discontent among Africans will likely remain manageable.
China’s Strategy in Africa
In general China has sought to portray itself as the world’s largest and most powerful developing country, while it describes Africa as the continent with the largest number of developing countries. It considers Chinese and African economies as highly complementary with strong prospects for cooperation. China’s January 2006 African Policy statement proposed a decades-long comprehensive agenda that has been well received by African leaders. This statement emphasized non-interference in internal affairs, equality, mutual benefit and support, and, most critical to Beijing, an acceptance of the one-China principle.
This principle assigned a premium to high-level exchanges in all spheres of activity. It called for a new international political and economic order that would safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries. China promised to facilitate the entrance of African products into the Chinese market, increase investment in Africa, and intensify agricultural cooperation. It began to encourage Chinese enterprises in order to help build infrastructure in African countries, something the West has been reluctant to do in recent years. And it promised to help Africa raise the level of tourism, reduce its debt, and increase economic assistance. The policy statement called for comprehensive cooperation in the fields of education, science and technology, culture, medicine and health, media, the environment, and disaster relief. It offered training assistance to African military personnel as well as support to internal defense building and African peacekeeping operations. Finally, the statement noted that China would promote cooperation with African judicial, law enforcement, and immigration departments while addressing non-traditional security threats such as terrorism.
The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), launched in 2000, is the vehicle through which China manages this relationship. The Third Ministerial Conference of FOCAC took place in Beijing in November 2006. All 48 African countries that have diplomatic relations with China sent senior delegations, most of them led by their respective heads of state. Only five countries—the Gambia, Malawi, Swaziland, Burkina Faso, and Sao Tome and Principe, all of which have formal relations with Taiwan—did not participate.
The Beijing Action Plan resulting from the last FOCAC conference was ambitious in both its depth and breadth. Specific decisions included a Chinese pledge to increase from 190 to 440 the number of items from Africa’s least developed countries that are permitted to enter China duty-free. China said it would establish a China-Africa Development Fund capitalized at US$5 billion to support investments in Africa by Chinese companies. It also promised to double the value of its 2006 development assistance program by 2009 and cancel some states’ government interest-free loans that were due at the end of 2000.
In addition to these economic initiatives, China agreed to train 15,000 African professionals over the next three years and to increase the number of Chinese government scholarships for African students from the current 2,000 to 4,000 by 2009. It will help establish 100 rural schools, send 100 agricultural experts to Africa, and set up 10 agricultural technology demonstration centers. It pledged to build 30 hospitals and 30 demonstration centers for the prevention and treatment of malaria and will continue to send medical teams and supplies to Africa.
This February, President Hu Jintao made his third visit to Africa since coming to power in 2003. His twelve-day, eight-country tour focused on trade, aid, and investment. Hu canceled debt during stops in Cameroon, Liberia, Sudan, Zambia, and Mozambique, and he pledged soft loans and grants to Cameroon (totaling US$100 million), Sudan (US$117 million), Namibia (US$139 million), and Seychelles (US$35 million). He also inaugurated a major mining partnership in Zambia’s copper belt and pledged a new “strategic partnership” with South Africa. The visit illustrated China’s way of using high-level personal contact to reach out to virtually every country on the continent with which it has diplomatic relations. The Chinese Communist Party also maintains regular contact with ruling African political parties and even some opposition parties.
Forces behind China-Africa Ties
While China’s strategy in Africa plays down the importance of its quest for African natural resources to fuel its fast-growing economy, most observers believe that its desire for African energy, minerals, and timber is the single most important factor driving the relationship. One-third of China’s oil imports come from Africa, and this proportion is growing. But the relationship also provides benefits for Africa, including Chinese aid and direct investment, reasonably good quality manufactured goods at low costs, and some technology transfer. Granted, China will not cure poverty in Africa, but it is certainly making a positive contribution.
China’s foreign aid, loans, technical and military assistance, export credits, high-level exchanges, Confucius Institutes, and debt cancellation policies all support its efforts to increase its influence in Africa. China is working hard to develop meaningful relationships with all 48 African countries that recognize Beijing and has a resident embassy in every African country with which it has diplomatic relations except for Somalia, where the security situation precludes one. Indeed, even the United States does not have resident diplomatic presence in small island nations like the Seychelles, Comoros, and Sao Tome and Principe.
Beijing’s ties are especially intense with those countries that are current or potential suppliers of raw materials for the Chinese economy. Angola, Sudan, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Nigeria, Algeria, and Chad all sell significant amounts of oil to China. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Congo-Brazzaville, Namibia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo provide minerals, while Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, and Liberia are suppliers of timber.
It would, nevertheless, be a mistake to conclude that China considers Africa only as a source of raw materials. China also views Africa, which contains 14 percent of the world’s population, as a potentially important market for its exports and a destination for Chinese investment. Trade between China and Africa reached US$50.5 billion in 2006, up 30 percent over 2005, and it is expected to reach US$100 billion by 2010. China is now Africa’s third largest trading partner after the United States and France, and by the beginning of 2007, Chinese investment in Africa reached US$12 billion. Although increasing rapidly, this amount is modest compared to Western investment and has been concentrated in oil and extractive industries.
African countries constitute well over a quarter of the United Nations’ 192 members and are thus an essential component of China’s efforts to play a more important global role. China and Africa tend to support each other in international forums on human rights issues and those of special concern to the developing world. China has been most appreciative of Africa’s strong advocacy for its one-China policy and looks for future backing on other contentious political and economic issues. China is developing broad-based strategic partnerships with key African countries such as Egypt and South Africa, and it has been looking to develop a similar relationship with Nigeria.
Except for announcing its numerous high-level military exchanges, China tends to avoid commenting on its military and security relations with Africa, which are almost as strong as its economic ties. The Beijing Action Plan said nothing about military cooperation other than expressing continued support for UN peacekeeping operations in Africa. Chinese military linkages with Africa are historically based on strong support for liberation movements, and military ties continue to be significant today in Algeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Angola, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Tanzania. The major recipients of Chinese military equipment, training, and cooperation are frequently important sources of strategic raw materials. China’s long-standing military relationship with Tanzania and its somewhat more recent relationships with Egypt and Ethiopia are exceptions to this trend. Although China is a major supplier of small arms to Africa, since 2000 it has remained well behind Russia and Germany in the total value of arms it transfers to the continent. China has become a significant participant in UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, where it now has more than 1,300 personnel. Its largest involvements are in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it has mining concessions; Liberia, which provides timber; and Sudan, where it has large oil investments.
As China considers its future global security interests, analysts wonder if it intends to develop a “blue water” navy. One expert on this subject estimates that China could have such a fleet by 2020. The Chinese navy sent two of its ships to Africa for the first time in 2000 when they called at ports in Tanzania and South Africa, and as part of its first round-the-world cruise in 2002, Chinese ships visited Alexandria, Egypt. These developments suggest that China, a growing regional military power, may eventually build a fleet that does not have to rely on US protection of the sea lanes between China and Africa.
China as a Development Model for Africa?
As Beijing expands its influence in Africa, many Westerners are concerned that China is attempting to serve as a development model for African countries. Indeed, some observers argue that this goal is implicit in the Beijing Action Plan. A few African leaders have suggested that China’s experience can guide their development strategies. The 2006 Declaration of the Beijing Summit at the FOCAC Conference stated that “African countries are greatly inspired by China’s rapid economic development.”
However, China has not made any particular effort to convince Africans to follow its development path. Chinese experts on Africa insist that China is not an appropriate development model for the continent, explaining that the two regions have very different historical traditions and important structural differences. Even within China, there are widely varying development models, depending on the level of education, available skills, and capital. While some regions rely on small and medium sized companies, others emphasize large enterprises that export most of their production.
Most African countries do not have the economic advantages that can be found in China, such as significant investment initiatives from a broad diaspora community. Furthermore, China has a higher savings rate and level of education than virtually every African country. Indeed, an African ambassador in Beijing with whom I spoke may have provided the best answer to the development model debate. He argued that while China is not a model for Africa in the macroeconomic sense or from a political point of view, African countries might still be able to effectively emulate individual Chinese policies such as its initiative to provide universal primary education.
Facing Reality and Criticism
The more it engages with Africa, the greater the likelihood that Beijing will have to face the reality of doing business on the continent. Nearly every African government is pleased with China’s increasing presence on the continent. China offers an alternative, whether actual or potential, to traditional Western assistance and political support. Based on anecdotal evidence, most ordinary Africans seem to welcome China’s attention as well. However, reality is beginning to confront both Africa and China in this area. It is not just Western countries and organizations that criticize China’s unwillingness to improve environmental practices and confront human rights abuses, corruption, and poor governance in Africa. African civil society organizations, opposition parties, and even occasional government leaders are expressing concern that China is either complicit or too silent on these controversial issues.
China has received the most criticism for its strong economic, political, and military support of Sudan and Zimbabwe—two countries with very poor records on human rights. Sudan is the greater challenge for China because of the conflict in Darfur, which has been labeled genocide by the United States. China has large investments in the oil industry and receives about seven percent of its imported oil from Sudan. Western countries have long accused China of not putting sufficient pressure on Khartoum to change its policy in Darfur. China has moved from almost unconditional support of Khartoum to quiet pressure for a larger UN peacekeeping role—a message that President Hu Jintao conveyed to Sudan’s President, Omar Al Bashir, at the Beijing summit last November and during his visit to Sudan in February. This signals a slight retreat from China’s policy of non-interference in African internal affairs. Yet at the same time, Hu cancelled some of Sudan’s debt and offered to build a presidential palace. The United States complained that this sent a mixed message, expressing disappointment that China did not apply more diplomatic pressure on Sudan to reform.
Zambia is a second example of a case in which Chinese investment has sparked criticism—this time domestic. China reopened a large copper mine eight years ago that initially engendered considerable goodwill due to high job creation. Then there was a serious mining accident in 2005 followed by allegations of poor safety conditions, slashing of workers’ benefits, and discouragement of union formation. As a result, the leader of the opposition party whipped up anti-Chinese sentiment before last year’s presidential election. And even though he lost, the event created a permanent atmosphere of animosity toward China. President Hu, upon learning that miners planned to protest, canceled his proposed February visit to the mine at the last minute.
China and Africa are, in many respects, rather unlikely partners. Africa has 900 million people; China has 1.3 billion. Africa’s total gross national income is only about one quarter of China’s. The gross national income per capita in China is more than US$1,500, while the average in Africa is well under half that amount. China’s share of world trade is about nine percent, Africa’s is only about two percent. Although most of China is still poorly developed, there is no part of Africa, with the possible exception of South Africa, that is comparable, even on a small scale, to China’s highly developed and industrialized coastal region.
And although trade between China and Africa has generally had positive consequences, it has also generated increasing problems. China has major trade deficits with the five African countries that sell it large quantities of oil and moderate deficits with the half dozen states that sell it significant amounts of minerals and timber. It has large trade surpluses with nearly all the remaining countries, which include many of Africa’s poorest states. Total Chinese-African trade is nearly in balance, although Chinese exports to Africa are growing faster than its imports from Africa. For example, in 2006 China had a surplus of more than US$1.5 billion with South Africa. There is growing pressure to redress this imbalance. This situation led South African President Thabo Mbeki to warn that “China cannot only just come here and dig for raw materials and then go away and sell us manufactured goods.”
The problem has been especially severe for African countries that produce textiles. The end of the World Trade Organization’s Multi-Fibre Agreement in 2005 eliminated any advantage held by the Africans. It permitted more efficient Asian, especially Chinese, producers to undercut African textiles and flood African markets. Chinese textile exports have seriously harmed industries in Lesotho, Swaziland, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia, and Morocco. Many African textile factories have been shut down, resulting in the loss of an estimated 250,000 jobs and 37 percent of Africa’s textile capacity.
A related problem is the growing number of small Chinese traders and business persons residing in Africa. Chinese officials explain that many of these businesses come to Africa from third countries over which China has no control. In South Africa alone, such business persons are estimated to number between 100,000 and 300,000. They often undercut small African traders, forcing them out of the market and generating hostility toward the Chinese. In addition, construction projects financed by China occasionally result in an influx of Chinese laborers, which sometimes sparks complaints from African workers who feel that they are entitled to such jobs. Nor is the Chinese community immune to conflicts in Africa—early this year Nigerian gunmen abducted five Chinese telecommunications workers in the volatile Niger Delta.
Africans are generally quick to criticize the conditionality of Western assistance and praise the Chinese for eschewing it. For example, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi pointed out that one cannot buy good governance in Africa; such developments can only come from inside the country. The Chinese, he added, understand this fact. On the other hand, Western donors, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund worry that unconditional aid from China is harming their efforts to achieve economic and political reform in Africa. World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz expressed concerns last year about the lending practices in Africa of Chinese banks that ignore a code of conduct for meeting social and environmental standards. Environmental groups are especially critical of the environmental implications of the Merowe dam in Sudan, where Chinese companies are the primary contractors.
The lines are now drawn on most of these issues. China realizes it faces challenges and some criticism from both Africans and the West. It has already begun to respond to African trade complaints and Western concerns over its reluctance to put pressure on Sudan concerning Darfur. As its global role grows, China will probably move further away from some of the principles in its 2006 African Policy statement and the Beijing Action Plan. It will not, however, jeopardize relations with African governments in control of critical oil and mineral exports that fuel China’s economy. However, if China hopes to be able to maintain its strong influence on the continent and continue to reap the benefits of the close relationships it has established with African states, it will have to balance its own economic and strategic interests with the complaints and criticisms that continue to be levied against it.