The integration of the People’s Republic of China into the world’s economic and political systems has become crucial to long-term global stability. Over the past 30 years, China has transitioned from a Cold War pariah to an international powerhouse, due in large part to the country’s ability to forge positive economic and commercial relations with other developing countries. As the PRC deepens its international ties, whether it plays fairly by the existing ‘rules of the game’ when it comes to trade practices, currency valuation, politics, and foreign aid policies has become a hugely important matter for all countries.
Touching on the full range of international interests – economic, diplomatic, strategic, technological, and military – China’s relations with Africa can be seen as a laboratory for the country’s global ambitions. Since the late 1990s, we have seen a dramatic escalation in China’s engagement with African nations and, consequently, a growing anxiety in the West. As China’s influence continues to rise, will it challenge Western models of economic development, democracy, and human rights? Does Beijing provide African nations an alternative to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) consensus on governmental and development policies, giving China an “unfair” advantage in competing for the continent’s resources? Given China’s presence in the continent’s conflict zones, the world financial crisis, and so on, it is even more critical to understand China’s behavior in the long run.
This essay measures China’s behavior in Africa against international norms, and evaluates whether this behavior indicates long-term convergence toward or divergence from these norms. The central contribution of our work is heuristic, providing a new way to frame and think about these issues. We do not seek to provide full and perfect evidence, but to combine the framework with available data to illuminate China’s behavior and guide practical responses.
We first explain the Convergence/Divergence model. After describing the tendencies that constitute conventional and provocative behavior, we review the specifics of four issue areas of the Sino-African relationship: trade, aid, arms sales, and human rights. Our final analysis reaches conclusions about the long-term effect of the Chinese influence in Africa, and outlines the policy implications for governments.
Convergence vs. Divergence
If we consider ‘international norms’ somewhat constant in the long-term, then at any given moment a country’s behavior will be above, in-line with, or below acceptable global standards. If we chart that behavior over time, we should be able to explain that country’s long-term convergence or divergence with the larger norm. By aggregating various singular issues (aid, trade, arms sales, etc.) into a single value - “International Norms & Behavior” - we create a common framework.
We assume that over time a country largely acts within a consistent range of behavior. Countries that are active in international institutions, in-step with global practices, and positive influences in the world may generally operate above the international norm base line. Countries like Sweden come to mind. Those that blatantly violate international regimes and practices abusive domestic practices are generally well below the norm. North Korea is an obvious example. In our case, the rising green line represents the sum of Western/OECD norms governing key elements of international relations. Conceptually, this line would be the sum of domain-specific regimes – trade, aid, diplomatic engagement, human rights and so on. As a heuristic, the point is that over a long enough period of time a country’s course of convergence towards or divergence from these norms should be the primary factor in judging that nation’s behavior.