Narayani Basu   May 2014

From May 4th to 11th this year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Africa for a week long trip to the subcontinent – his first since he took office last year. The trip took him to Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia and Kenya. His visit, and that of President Xi Jinping last year, highlights Africa’s importance on China’s foreign policy roadmap. But the trips came at a time when China’s image in Africa has been taking somewhat of a beating. 

China’s Africa Policy

The Africa policy of the Chinese Communist Party is rooted in ‘development’ and what it calls ‘mutually beneficial cooperation’. It is certainly not, by any means, a new policy or a paradigm shift. China has always believed that African countries hold diplomatic potential – a belief that dates back as far as the late 1950s and early 1960s. In more contemporary times, however, Chinese interest in Africa was sparked by the events surrounding Tiananmen Square in June 1989, when African leaders were quick to support Beijing in the face of worldwide criticism. Following a decade of neglect in the 1970s (during which China embarked on its Socialist Modernisation project), Beijing now remembered the usefulness of African support. This was, coincidentally, a time when ideological upheavals were convulsing the West. The Cold War was ending, and a newfound wave of democracy was sweeping the world. China could now posit itself as a champion of the Third World, and a fighter against imperialism and ‘neo-imperialism’ – a position which Africa not only supported, but shared. Based on this, China began equate human rights with ‘economic rights’, asserting that no government had the right to criticise other governments. The principle of non-interference, such a vital cog in China’s foreign policy toward the African subcontinent, was thus put in place. 

Beijing explained non-interference as respect for African states’ autonomy when it came to creating their own development programs, and a desire for their support in establishing a new and rational economic order. Drawn as it is from the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (otherwise known asPanchsheel) which Beijing ranks on an equal footing with the Charter of the United Nations, it is an example of how China was seeking to court Africa within a more global framework. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was also an indicator that China was beginning to play by global rules – an example was the establishment of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (CACF) in 2000. 
China also contributes a sizeable mission to the UN Peacekeeping Forces deployed across the troubled continent. China’s approach to the continent at large was neatly reflected in its response to the Kenyan elections last year. On March 9 2013, Kenyan voters elected Uhuru Kenyatta as president and William Ruto as vice president in a narrowly decided election. Both are facing indictments from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for allegedly orchestrating the violence that followed Kenya’s 2007 presidential elections. While Western governments voiced concern over the election of ICC-indictees, China reaffirmed that it would support the country regardless of the electoral outcome.  

Moves such as these allowed China to gain international traction and support for its policies in Africa, especially with international watchdogs like the United Nations. 
Nevertheless, the economic thrust behind these tactful machinations could not be hidden for long, and China’s growing thirst for oil, minerals and other natural resources soon began to claim the upper hand in its Africa policy. In the 21st century, this economic impulse has been unarguably dominant, though Beijing keeps up the façade of non-interference. 
Its resource diplomacy in Africa is tied with the polite bows of simple reciprocation of recognition of the One-China policy and the stated principle that Beijing will not interfere in African internal or domestic matters. This being said, the ties are hardly altruistic. Under the framework of ‘resources for development’, Beijing mobilizes its vast financial resources to invest broadly in infrastructure projects across Africa and extract natural resources in return. The investments have so far yielded multiple benefits for China, including the relocation of labour intensive and heavy industries from China, political favours extracted from African governments on foreign policy issues and a positive international image of China being a ‘responsible’ stakeholder. There is every likelihood that the strategy will continue.

China’s investments in Africa have burgeoned steadily over the years. Currently, they pan across many sectors and are not confined to the Chinese government and state-owned companies. Several private Chinese companies have also invested heavily in Africa. For example, Huawei, a leading Chinese global telecom services provider, has invested a total of USD 1.5 billion and employs 4000 workers in Africa alone. The past decade’s trade figures also attest to China’s growing trade ties with Africa, having grown from just USD 9 billion in 2000 to USD 210 billion in 2013. The rationale behind African openness to Chinese investment has been simple enough so far – for a continent that is desperate for aid and resource infrastructure, the interests of a rising superpower are always welcome, especially when, as is the case with Beijing, those interests come with large sums of money and the potential promise of infrastructure development. 

But Africa is no longer the world’s rich man’s burden. 
Its economies are booming and it is commanding a fairly integral place on the global economic map. Over the past decade, Africa has carved out a niche for itself in the global economy. African economies are projected to register leaps in national output in 2013 and 2014. In 2013 alone, South Sudan, Sierra Leone and Libya are the top three global economic hotspots with projected growth rates of 32%, 17% and 20% respectively. In 2011-2012 alone, economic growth averaged an estimated 5.2%, compared to the world average of 3.9%. 
Between 2011-2015, the IMF has further predicted that seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world will be from Sub-Saharan Africa. If these figures turn out to be true, and not just indicators, then Africa could, as 2012’s World Bank Report on the issue notes, be on the brink of an economic takeoff.

China in Africa: A View from The West

The competition between the United States and China in the African subcontinent has used much newsprint of late. The main question being – is the United States of America really being increasingly edged out of the continent, both politically and economically? After all, Beijing’s no-strings attached policies of aid and infrastructure development is a far easier alternative to opt for in the face of the more sternly principled development assistance from the US and other international multilateral institutions. When President Obama visited Africa in June last year, it was seen as an attempt to play catch-up with China. 

Indeed, a new Pew Research Centre poll highlights the fact that, for most African nations, the balance of power politics game is not going unnoticed. At a time when the United States is rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific and strengthening its ties therein, China is looking towards the Middle East, South Asia and Africa as theatres to expand its own control, given the very fluid nature of geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific. But while foreign policy hawks might see things differently, the United States still maintains fairly good influence in the continent. 

However, if Washington can better coordinate on key issues like aid, technology, and political, diplomatic and soft power approaches towards the continent, it could help its own cause. This may have been the underlying message with which President Obama visited Africa last year, with an accompanying entourage of 
American CEOs, business leaders and the heads of the US Export-Import Bank, US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), and the Overseas Private Investment Cooperation (OPIC).  The President’s visit reflected the heavy tilt towards economics, with meetings with leaders in banking and finance across Africa, visits to power plants in Tanzania and roundtables with African CEOs. 

This approach could, given the signs of growing wariness that some African countries and leaders are projecting vis-a-vis China, be a breath of fresh air. For its part, the United States has been doing its best to underscore the cons of Chinese influence in Africa. A prime example 
is the 2012 speech by the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in Senegal, where she argued that Africa needs a “model of sustainable partnership that adds value, rather than extracts it.”  In this context, then, on August 5-6 this year,  47 African leaders have been invited for the first US-Africa Summit, marking Washington’s decision to take a wider role in trade and security on the African sub-continent. Despite the attempts by the United States to project China in a negative light,  it remains to be seen how African leaders will choose to interpret these moves. 

Has China Outstayed its Welcome? 

The partnership between China and Africa has certainly been fruitful for the former, but whether the alliance has yielded tangible results is something that African leaders are beginning to voice their concerns about. China may have peppered the continent with newly built stadiums, airports, hospitals, highways and dams, but these projects have also left many African countries saddled with heavy debts and other problems, from environmental conflict to labor strife. In this context, Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, has gone on record to state his fears vis-à-vis some ‘bad  experiences’ with Chinese companies in his  country. In an opinion article published in the Financial Times in 2013, the governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi, alleged that Chinese investment in sub-Saharan Africa smacked of colonialism in size and style. 

This claim is evidenced by the growing number of small-scale Chinese private firms are setting up in Africa, without the direct endorsement of the Chinese government. This growth of private investments in sectors outside the traditional Chinese areas of investment in natural resources has fuelled a good deal of resentment among local investors and people. In many African countries, Chinese traders have forced local shopkeepers out of business. In March 2014, oil workers at two Chinese-invested projects in Chad and Niger went on strike, protesting against unequal pay. To boot, Beijing has also been accused of holding back the African economy by focusing on the pursuit of raw materials, rather than on the creation of local markets and jobs. China, too, has found areas of discomfort in its bilateral ties with Africa, as large firms face troubles due to political insecurity. Nowhere has the case been clearer than in Libya where more than 40,000 Chinese workers were building houses, roads and other infrastructure under deals worth USD 18 billion, signed with Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s government. When the civil war broke out, the projects were abandoned as Beijing hastily evacuated its men. Other examples persist.Recently, Zambia took control of a Chinese copper mine after numerous complaints of labor abuses. Botswana’s president called for a reduction in new contracts to Chinese companies, citing poor construction and delays. In January 2013, Nigerian workers protested employment conditions at a Chinese construction site, complaining that “we work for seven days a week and make peanuts.” And in Angola, which exports oil and natural resources to China, China’s resource-driven policies have been roundly criticized. Last year in Beijing, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa cautioned that Africa’s lopsided trade relationship with China is “unsustainable in the long term.” 

Despite the appeal in Africa of China’s non-interference in political issues, China’s economic policies themselves cannot last. Certainly this is not the case for all of  Africa at the moment. Kenya, for example, continues to be happy with China’s support. Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe is another supporter of Beijing’s cheque-book diplomacy (and its arms support). But there are enough voices to assume that China may need to do a little more to bolster its image in Africa. 

The New Leadership & China’s Africa Policy 

China’s new administration has specific African policy initiatives. For instance, China will continue to expand investment and financing cooperation with Africa, and provide $30 billion in loan credits to Africa in three years, and take part in cross-border and inter-regional African infrastructure construction. China will train 30,000 African professionals in various sectors, offer 18,000 government scholarships, and take steps to improve the content and quality of the training programs in three years. Beijing has promised to grant zero-tariff treatment to 97 percent of exports from least-developed countries that have established diplomatic relations with China, pledging to put in place the relevant measures by 2015. These specific policies provide important advantages for Africa’s infrastructure construction, personnel training, capital accumulation, and trade with China, which also helps strengthen China-Africa relations. China is also looking to court Africa for the development of strategic naval and military bases. While work has already started in Marange (near Zimbabwe), Djibouti has also agreed to allow China to develop a base.

Given its lengthy history in the field of resource diplomacy, as well as the new potential that Africa holds in terms of strategic bases, and agricultural investment, the new leadership will not want to see any inroads that China has made in Africa blocked. 
The goal behind Xi Jinping’s trip to Africa last year, then, was to try and soothe some of the raw nerves that have been exposed in China’s recent dealings with Africa. During the high-profile tour, Xi signed deals worth billions of dollars in assistance for the African countries of Tanzania, South Africa, and Congo. For China, it is no longer simply about resource diplomacy. Beijing’s activities in Africa have long been tagged under the phrase ‘
colonialism’, and Xi Jinping’s tour of Africa appeared to signal a paradigm shift away from pure economics. The ruling Chinese Communist Party-run Global Times quoted Xi as telling a meeting of African leaders in Durban that China would actively participate in the mediation and solving of hotspot issues in Africa, besides encouraging Chinese enterprises to expand their investments in Africa. This signals a definite shift away from a policy based purely on non-interference in exchange for natural resources. Beijing is looking beyond the traditional boundaries of resource diplomacy and is aspiring to increase its strategic presence through enhanced political, economic and diplomatic resources.

This year, Li’s agenda showed an attempt to follow up on the Chinese President’s initiative, by incorporating a more multilateral focus, although the use of chequebook diplomacy was never far away. In Ethiopia alone, the Chinese Premier signed 16 deals, including loans and cooperation agreements for the construction of roads and industrial zones. In a meeting at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa (built, ironically, by the Chinese as a gift to Africa), it was  announced that Africa’s credit line to China would be increased by $10 billion. Pushing for an upgradation of Sino-African trade ties, Li Keqiang promised that China’s policy in Africa would now encompass industrial cooperation, environmental protection, and the reduction of poverty – all areas which African leaders claim have been neglected in recent Chinese policy moves.

In Nigeria (May 6-8), Li participated in the World Economic Forum on Africa in Abuja – touted to be the African version of Davos – where he spoke on the mutual benefits of African cooperation. He then stopped in Angola (May 8-9), where he sought to strengthen bilateral ties with the leading African exporter of oil to China. On the last leg of his trip, to Kenya (May 9-11), Li visited the headquarters of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT).

The official standpoint – that China could never impose imperialism on others, when it is what it has suffered itself in the past – is one that Li was quick to make in his press conferences in Africa so far, but whether this standpoint will be believed in the times ahead is yet to be seen.  

Narayani Basu is a freelance journalist, with a special focus on Chinese foreign policy and China-Africa relations.

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