Article by Justin McCarthy, written for and originally published by the St. Andrews Foreign Affairs Review.
At a time when the world seems wholly preoccupied with ongoing events in the Middle East, namely the ‘global war on terror’ and the ongoing crisis in Syria, China’s growing engagement with Africa has comparatively gone unnoticed in the West. Over the last part of the decade, China has committed an estimated $105 billion in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and aid to the continent, second only to the US who (might) yet still hold a slight edge over China. As the US and Europe continue to struggle with the global economic woes, China has continued to increase investment across the entire developing world. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in a set of ongoing questions as to China’s motivations, though it is important to consider that much of the negative rhetoric spread by the US and EU is a reactionary result of a perceived security threat. Many of the Western powers that criticise China today were, in fact, the same states that imposed their will on Africa during the colonial period, and, much more recently, during the French intervention in Mali. China’s presence in Africa is undoubtedly far from altruistic, but it is too simple a narrative to ascribe a single motive to the relationship and jump to an inaccurate conclusion and simply label them ‘economic mercenaries.’ Consequently, the question still remains: cui bono?
Broadly speaking, three factors shape Beĳing’s policy in Africa: resource security, development cooperation, and investment opportunities, and symbolic diplomacy. By no stretch of the imagination, Africa is a literal battlefield for natural resources. The Chinese economy, even as it slows, still requires vast amounts of imported raw materials and energy. China is the world’s largest net importer of crude oil, one third of which comes directly from Africa. This makes Africa an essential part of Beijing’s long-term plan for resource and energy security. Furthermore, the recent developments in the Middle East, specifically Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria have only encouraged a diversification strategy. In addition, Africa’s endowment of non-fuel minerals only compliments and invites further investment. The DRC is the world’s leading cobalt producer, South Africa the world’s leading platinum producer (36%), and South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe together account for over half the world’s gold and diamond mining output. Despite China’s ever-growing influence on the continent, accusations of neo-colonialism, and mercantilism persist, spearheaded by Nigerian Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi, who charged China with taking primary goods and selling manufactured ones.
Nonetheless, many African governments have shown a surprising assertiveness and insist that absolute gains are possible because they set the agenda. The first person to be expelled from Africa’s youngest country, South Sudan, was Chinese: Liu Yingcai, the local head of Petrodar, a Chinese-Malaysian oil company and the government’s biggest customer, in connection with an alleged $815m oil “theft.” Moreover, China’s involvement on the continent is far more diverse than it is given credit for. China usually attaches a significant amount of its FDI and aid funding to infrastructure projects that form the foundation for Africa’s industrialization and economic development: many of these projects require large investment and long pay-back terms that traditional donors are reluctant to provide. Other efforts include a newly christened programme allotting 12.000 African scholarships to Chinese universities and an entourage of 1.500 health professionals that were dispatched across China’s fifty embassies in an effort to combat preventable and treatable illnesses.
China’s rising influence in Africa also underlines a broader outlay: Beijing wishes to demonstrate its ascendancy as a key power on the world stage and concurrently suppress any attempt by Taiwan to gain a diplomatic foothold in Africa. Aid is often given in exchange for recognising the One China policy, even to countries such as South Africa that posses significantly higher GDPs than China. Also central to Chinese foreign policy at the global level is an overriding concern with American hegemony. This has resulted in a search for strategic partners with whom Beijing shares common core interests: an overriding respect for sovereignty as the basis for international society and non-intervention in the domestic affairs of states. Consequently, in geo-political terms it is easy to see why many African dictators turn to China in pursuit of regime stability. Western donors often impose “conditionalities” designed to punish many dictatorial regimes that violate the settled norms and standards of “good governance”. The symbolism of China, a once-impoverished country victimised by Western imperialism also resonates strongly with African elites looking for constructive models of development in the developing world. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party provides a concrete example of the potentiality of adaptability to the global market for African dictators who continue to search for models of success that do not jeopardise regime interests.
Tangentially, many senior Chinese officials and businessmen find the West’s overwhelming emphasis on democracy and transparency laughable, posing the rhetorical question, what is the use of democracy for those without food? The Chinese mindset values pragmatism and the subjugation of political liberalisation to the ‘higher cause’ of economic development and the elimination of concrete harm; dominant western development paradigms are seen to be predicated on the paternalist assumption development problems are solvable via western expertise. It is also important to note that despite a leaked US diplomatic cable that stated “China lacked ‘morals’ in Africa”, it is so far yet to undermine democratic institutions or conventions in Africa.
Is Beijing’s growing influence on the African continent a form of mutualism compatible with visions of absolute gains? Probably not, though Sino-African relations are certainly no less benign than any relationships with the US or EU. Questions still remain as to whether the average citizen will benefit from such enormous capital investments. It is useful to recall Michael Foucault who aptly said “history is not an upward journey towards freedom but a cyclical process in which societies move from one form of domination to another,” at a time when Africa and Africans seem subject to Chinese interests.