China in Africa: Devil or angel?

china flagToo many doubts have been raised in the international community over the nature of China-Africa cooperation. As early as 2006, then Britain foreign secretary, Jack Straw, remarked that what China was doing in Africa was much the same as what Britain had done 150 years before. Five years later, Hillary Clinton, the then American Secretary of the State, insinuated in Zambia in June 2011 that China’s presence in Africa was a new colonialism. During a recent visit to Africa in January 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said China’s aid to Africa was motivated by a desire to secure access to African natural resources. This, to some degree, indicates that some westerners tend to interpret China’s Africa policy and Sino-African relations from the perspective of self-righteous moralists.

Speaking of China’s role in Africa’s development, is China a devil or an angel? As is well known, a nation’s foreign policy always serves its national interest. China is no exception. China has never denied that its African policy has its own strategic interests. However, one of the most outstanding features of China’s African policy from the very beginning is its aspiration to promote the South-South cooperation and to achieve the renaissance of Asia and Africa. Of course, there exist, no doubt, some problems in China-Africa cooperation, such as trade imbalance, lack of corporate social responsibility of some Chinese enterprises and so on. But, the fact is that China’s engagement in Africa provides Africa with new development opportunities and promotes Africa to integrate into the global system in a more favourable way.

First of all, China’s economic development benefits from China-Africa economic and trade cooperation. According to statistics, bilateral trade rocketed from $10.6 billion in 2000 to $198.4 billion in 2012. Since 2009, China has been the largest trade partner of Africa, surpassing the United States and Europe. China’s outward foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in Africa increased fast from $400.9 million in 2003 to $21.2 billion in 2012. China began to import crude oil from Africa in 1992. The amount increased from 500 thousand tons in 1992 to 64.69 million tons in 2010. In recent years, crude oil from Africa accounted for 23.9% of the total of China’s imported oil. China’s economic interest in Africa lies in many fields, while the most important and urgent is to realize the diversification of its import of resources and energy. Like any other big power which has its own definite overseas energy interest and energy strategy, China doesn’t need to skirt around its energy demand from Africa. When facing Western criticism of China-Africa energy cooperation, China should not feel stampeded or panic.

China-Africa economic cooperation will also help Chinese enterprises to accumulate the experience they need in order to better engage with globalization, which is part of the significance of China’s enterprises going abroad to Africa. Through investment, trade and projects in Africa, the Chinese enterprises can get precious experience of overseas market development, business management, capital operation, risk aversion and ways of dealing with local government, the public and the international community. Chinese enterprises in Africa are confronted with great pressures and criticism in respect of environment protection and labour-capital problem, which, as a result, promote Chinese enterprises to behave themselves, enhance their corporate social responsibility and gain more knowledge of rules of international economy.

Above all, China-Africa cooperation is of great strategic importance. In history, African countries have given China many extremely valuable diplomatic supports which could be manifested, at least, by three important events. First, African countries supported China to regain its legal seat in the UN in 1970s. Just with the help of African countries, China was able to break the diplomatic plight, returned to the international community and won world respect. Second, after the 1989 political turmoil, African countries again helped China to break the western blockade. In China’s overall diplomatic strategy, Africa remains a very important strategic pivot which is vital for China to develop its relations with the rest of the world. Currently, the China-Africa relations focus more on economic cooperation than political cooperation. However, the political mutual trust is still the important content of China-Africa new-type strategic partnership in the 21st century. China will not engage in military alliances, but China also needs political partners.

It is no secret that China’s African policy has its own strategic intention, such as seeking for political support from Africa, obtaining access to strategic resources, suppressing Taiwan’s so-called ‘diplomatic space’ in Africa and so on. However, there is an idealism or mission or aspiration beyond the national interest from the very beginning in China’s African policy, which, unfortunately, is always overlooked, suspected or even denied by some foreign scholars.

In essence, the contemporary China-Africa relationship is a brand-new reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship which can promote the common development of both sides. It is a new type of strategic partnership based on political equality, characterized by mutual benefit and aimed at common development. It reflects China’s good will to advocate common prosperity and long-lasting peace of the whole world. China successively put forward well-known concepts such as ‘peaceful development’ and ‘harmonious world’, which demonstrates that China, sticking to a peaceful development path, will continue to view the relationship between its own international responsibility and the outside world in a broad vision of cosmopolitanism. In this sense, it is reasonably sound to say that promoting Africa’s common development will be an important part of China’s foreign policy in the new era. China’s development not only brings good to itself, but also benefits Africa and the rest of the world.

In the long run, China should contribute more to Africa’s development while emphasizing the mutually beneficial and win-win characteristics of the China-Africa cooperation. Since African countries’ industrial development capacity is weaker than China’s and are in an inferior competitive position in the globalized economy based on market principles, China should take particular care of Africa’s development, provide more help and benefits to Africa in the course of their bilateral economic cooperation. It can’t only stress its own economic gains through cooperation; instead, it must strive for the common development hand in hand with African countries. Besides, China’s engagement in Africa should answer the call of humanitarianism to help the needy and redress the unjust imbalances. To be a world influential power, China must learn how to help others while achieving its own development.

With the increasing consciousness of its global responsibility as well as the increasing strategic significance of the China-Africa relationship, China surely will contribute more to Africa’s peace and development. At the same time, African countries are attaching more importance to an all-around cooperation with China so as to promote their own renaissance and balance their traditional relations with western countries. Under such circumstances, we are firmly confident that the China-Africa relationship will have a much brighter future.

Luo Jianbo is director and professor of Center for African Studies and Zhang Xiaomin is associate professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.


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