Why China’s engagement with Africa is on the rise

By BOB WEKESA

To say that geostrategic interests between China and Africa are on a mindboggling rise is to state the obvious. Thought leaders such as Dambisa Moyo in Dead Aid, Stephen Hayes of the US think tank Corporate Council for Africa and Deborah Brautigam, author of The Dragon’s Gift have given in-depth reasons for China’s influence in Africa is not only rising but is actually appreciated by African leaders.

Indeed from a situation of criticism a few years ago, many scholars are beginning to take a favourable view of China’s engagement with Africa. 

The reaction of the West has been predictably paternalistic. In June last year, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for instance accused China of ‘colonising Africa’ after attending the US’ own trade and economic strategy with Africa called the African Growth Opportunity Act (Agoa) in Lusaka, Zambia.

Her criticism clearly springs from the US’ frustration as it becomes clear that US foreign policy towards Africa is not robust enough. For instance, between 2000 and 2010, the volume of trade between China and Africa grew at over 1,000 per cent making China the most important of Africa’s trading partners and overtaking both the EU and the US.

Last year, China outpaced Kenya’s traditional economic partners in trade terms and this is the position replicated elsewhere on the continent.

Statistics across other areas of Sino-African co-operation such as education, science and technology, agriculture, politics, culture and investments are on the rise.

Late last month, the magnificent Chinese built African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa was opened during the eighteenth AU summit – a bold example of China – Africa relations at the very apex.  

While Agoa has at best had modest results in integrating US-African economies as envisaged, the Forum on China Africa Co-operation (Focac) – the mechanism for Sino-Africa partnerships – has been assessed as successful including in the West.

That both Focac and AGOA were started in 2000 yet the latter has had better impact than the former speaks volumes about the weaknesses in the Agoa policy architecture.

Equally, various European Union leaders have expressed concern and dismay at the Sino-Africa ties.

With the exception of two African countries that do not have diplomatic relations with China, the remaining 52 now practice the ‘look East policy’.

Late last year, the US Senate Foreign Relations African Affairs subcommittee undertook hearings entitled, China’s Role in Africa: Implications for US Policy.

This is an indication that the US is about to change its strategy of engagement in Africa by specifically attempting to thwart China’s influence. 

In a similar but much more subtle approach, the European Union has sought to engage China in the so-called trilateral cooperation over the economic and development needs of Africa.

However, some analysts posit that by calling for joint approaches to Africa’s development, the EU might be more intent on taming China’s growing influence in Africa rather than any other altruistic purposes.

Whichever policy formulations emerge as the US and EU rethink and re-engineer their African strategy, one thing is for sure; China’s powerful entry into Africa has changed the equation and thrust Africa to the centrestage of geopolitics.

Divide-and-rule method

China, however, has a headstart over the West in more than one respect. When China sought closer collaboration with Africa, it did so by convening 2000 Sino Africa Summit attended by the top brass Chinese leadership and Africa’s heads of state. Since then, three other such multilateral meetings have been held, the last one in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt in 2009.

By contrast, Western strategies on Africa hinge on bilateral considerations with an inherent divide-and-rule method where some countries are favoured while others are condemned.

Secondly, China has operated under a lucid policy promulgated in 2006. At the heart of that policy is the principle of non-interference in the sovereign affairs of African nations. On the other hand, the EU and US have tied good governance, human rights and transparency demands to all their engagements with Africa.

While it may be true that governance issues are a challenge, these conditions have often been viewed as meddling in the affairs of African nations and China has provided a welcome alternative. Indeed for some African states such as Zimbabwe and Sudan, China is the only option for external support having been blacklisted by the West.

Thirdly, while the West has focused on governance and human rights issues in Africa, China has had a major impact in infrastructure. Today, roads, bridges and buildings are springing up across Africa thanks to long-term loans some of which require little or no interest for as many as two decades as well as grants.

For many Africans, infrastructure projects are important in opening up a poorly networked continent thus boosting trade within and between African countries.

Of course the underlying threat is that China is signing contracts with African countries especially for extractive resources. The feeling in the West is that African natural resources are their preserve on the basis of historical and traditional ties.

However, the thinking in many African states is that Western countries are responsible for the mess in which Africa finds itself today, from colonial legacies to the devastation of ‘Western Consensus’ and Structural Adjustment Programmes.

Increasingly, the Chinese mixed socialist market model is gaining currency and could attract more and more African nations to China.

The writer is a journalist studying at the Communication University of China.

 

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