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    Emerging powers in Africa Watch

    China’s Maturing Foreign Policy: Implications for Africa

    A response to Chris Colley

    Ian Taylor

    2008-11-03, Issue 405

    http://pambazuka.org/en/category/africa_china/51738

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    Chris Colley’s article ‘China’s Maturing Foreign Policy’ sets out a convincing argument that the underlying principles of Beijing’s foreign relations will not dramatically change and that a growing pragmatism based on “market rationality” will dictate relationships. Given that the increase in China’s economic and political involvement in Africa is arguably the most momentous development on the continent since the end of the Cold War, the implications for the continent are of profound interest. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is now Africa’s second most important trading partner; though behind the United States it is ahead of both France and the United Kingdom, with Sino-African trade hitting approximately $US74 billion in 2007.

    Beijing’s role in Africa—like that of all other foreign actors—is diverse, and its effect on the continent varies widely, depending on local economic and political circumstances. In this light, it is important to contextualize and discuss both Beijing’s foreign policy and the evolving political economy of the PRC. Relatedly, the diverse nature of both China and sub-Saharan Africa, warrants prompt consideration if we are to develop a coherent picture of what is going on.

    For instance, it is commonplace in the literature on Sino-African ties thus far to refer to “China.” Yet “China” as an ontological item is increasingly problematic, as it is less and less plausible to speak of the area it ostensibly covers as some sort of monolithic entity. China’s foreign-economic policies are put into practice by an increasingly diverse set of actors under pressure from a wide variety of interest groups and constituency demands. Although we might agree that the nexus between economic growth and national security has gained prominence in China since the mid-1990s, the reality of contemporary China and the ways in which power is exercised there complicates the linkage. If we were to summarize what Chinese foreign policy is, we might connect it to the key domestic concern of the Communist Party of China (CPC), namely promoting China’s economic development while preserving political and social stability. This connection reflects a process whereby the CPC has changed from a revolutionary party grounded in class struggle and mass mobilization to a ruling party, with its attendant focus on order and security. Foreign policy that sustains an international environment supportive of economic growth and stability in China is central.

    One way this policy is articulated is through the promotion of China as a responsible great power (fuzeren de daguo), a state that operates according to international norms and within multilateral institutions. This image is reinforced by the official concept of China’s “peaceful rise” or heping jueqi. Because some observers have focused on the inevitability of China’s “rise” rather than its “peaceful” character, the concept is now generally recast as “peaceful development” (heping fazhan) as a means to reassure other countries about Beijing’s intentions. In fact, Beijing’s policymakers go out of their way not to alarm the world about China’s rise, with Hu Jintao’s stated policy merely to build a “moderately prosperous society in all respects” (xiaokang shehui) along technocratic lines, according to the Scientific Outlook on Development or kexue fazhan guan.

    Certainly, China’s current economic trajectory requires a peaceful international environment, a goal that fits with the strategy to “go global” (zouchuqu), encouraging Chinese corporations to invest overseas and play a role in international capital markets. In short, there is a growing awareness regarding the interconnectedness of the international and domestic settings, which is illustrated by the slogan yu guoji jiegui, or “linking up with the international track”.

    The Myth of “China Inc.”

    One way in which analyses of the Chinese presence in Africa has been woefully misunderstood is in the way in which some analysts seem to think that “China” is, as mentioned above, a monolithic entity, a super-corporation as it were, with power emanating from central Beijing. In fact, when it comes to policy-making, as well as policy implementation, central government ministries as well as provincial and municipal bureaucracies all have an input, while state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have to be sensitive both to general government policies and proclamations and to the profit motive. Although the central government may have a broad Africa policy, it has to be mediated via the economic interests of private corporations and the political motivations and aspirations of local state officials who, with growing autonomy, may not share the enunciated central vision.

    Meanwhile, a new and still-changing combination of forces has been remaking Chinese foreign policy, a development intimately linked to the reform era. There now exists a pluralistic range of Chinese policymakers whose diverse interests are reflected in foreign policy and behaviour. Competition and compromise with respect to policy formulation is now the norm at all levels of government as the policy process has become more open, facilitating greater, more proactive input from various agencies rather than the former reactive version. Although the role of the paramount leader continues to be significant, in general, policy direction is increasingly open to advice from academics and business associations and as a result China’s policies toward Africa are becoming more nuanced. Crucially, a weak link between policy and implementation exists, For instance, the Ministry of Commerce and the SOEs have provincial and city as well as national offices, each with their own often divergent interests. Given that provincial SOEs make up nearly 90 percent of all Chinese companies investing overseas, center-provincial tensions—long a problem within the domestic polity—are regularly played out in Africa.

    Even with regard to ostensibly strategic arms of government, policy coherence has its limitations. For instance, Beijing has as of this publication been incapable of enforcing a geographical division of labor on the main national oil companies, namely the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), and the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC). The result is overlap and competition among China’s national oil companies, even though they are all ostensibly central to Beijing’s energy-security policies. All three corporations possess subsidiary companies and have independent seats on their executive boards, meaning that various agendas are often pursued. There is arguably little in the way of a unified strategy to secure an entrée into specific oil and gas fields; in some instances, national oil companies have even bid against one another—as when CNPC and Sinopec vied against each other for a pipeline project in Sudan. This interfirm competition is normal in the capitalist West but sheds a somewhat unexpected light on the notion of “China Inc.”

    In short, bureaucratic interests, domestic politics, corruption, and other pathologies of China’s capitalist development, as well as the increasing diversity in Beijing’s foreign-policy procedures, all coalesce to undermine the notion of a unitary Chinese state relentlessly pushing forward a single agenda, in Africa or elsewhere. Domestically, while state capacity to enforce policy continues to erode, competition among state agencies, even bureaus within single municipalities, is relentlessly increasing. Such difficulties are not restricted to the domestic sphere; they are often—and increasingly—reproduced abroad. The idea of the strategic use of economic relations by Beijing as a means of achieving power-politics objectives thus needs to be treated with caution. It is important not to overestimate the degree to which the Chinese state has been able to control and direct the evolution of its international economic relations. Indeed, economic liberalization has made it ever-more complicated for state authorities to identify exactly what Chinese firms and entrepreneurs are doing outside of China. The behavior of the three main national oil companies is one thing—although, as we have noted, they are not as monolithic as perhaps presumed—but the large number of small, often private, traders is something quite different. The notion that their actions are in some way representative of the Chinese state, or an element of some grand Chinese strategy, is far-fetched. Yet despite the ongoing liberalization process and the concomitant diversity of Chinese actors and interests overseas, studies are remarkably likely to refer to a unitary “China” with a single set of interests.

    Particularly in Africa, the huge proliferation of small-scale Chinese traders, very often private individuals or families, is all but impossible to manage. Weak rule of law, endemic corruption, and bureaucratic tendencies at every level of the Chinese government means that the central leadership is in a perpetual and losing struggle to keep up with a surging economy, whether domestic or when it is projected overseas. Furthermore, contention over foreign-policy aims and their implementation now defines debates within Beijing. For instance, whilst the Chinese Foreign Ministry is generally the most supportive of China’s evolving diplomacy as outlined by Chris Colley, it is not always able to assert its position over the Ministry of Commerce or the military. Thus demands that “China Inc.” should do x, y, or z in “Africa” miss the subtleties and realities of contemporary Chinese foreign policy.

    Which Africa?

    Equally, many analysts refer to “Africa” as if it is a country. And when they discuss Chinese activities on the continent it is as if conditions on the continent have no bearing on Chinese behaviour—when things go wrong it is assumed to be the fault of “the Chinese”. This position is primarily because many analysts exhibit little knowledge about the realties of African political economy. In a good many African countries, power is a function of patrimonial power and not a representation of the sovereign will of the people. In other words, behind the façade of the modern state, power in many African polities progresses informally between patron and client along lines of political reciprocity; it is intensely personalized and is not exercised on behalf of the public. One of the fundamental problems in much of postcolonial Africa is that the ruling classes lack hegemony. The early years of nationalism saw an attempt to build a hegemonic project, but it quickly failed, collapsing into autocracy. Moral and political modes that transcend economic-corporate interests are generally absent; the ethicopolitical aspect that, in a hegemonic project, helps build economic configurations but also lends legitimacy, is lacking. As a result, the ruling classes express their domination and their modalities of governance via both the threat and the use of violence as well as the immediate disbursal of material benefits to supporters in neopatrimonial regimes.

    Central to this scenario is the fact that, in most parts of Africa, class power is fundamentally dependent upon state power, and capturing the state—or at least being linked favorably to its leaders—is an essential precondition for acquisition and self-enrichment. Instead of a stable hegemonic project that binds different levels of society together, what we have in much of Africa is an intrinsically unstable, personalized system of domination. Absolutism reigns and power is maintained through patrimony, by means of the illegal commandeering of state resources. Corruption, not hegemonic rule, is the cement that keeps the system together, yoking the patrons to their predatory ruling class.

    Problematically for the continent’s development, resources obtained from the state or the economy are deployed as the means to maintain support and legitimacy in this system, with the concomitant effect that control of the state is equivalent to control of resources, which, in turn, is crucial for maintaining power. Control of the state serves the twin purposes of lubricating the patronage networks and satisfying the selfish desire of elites to enrich themselves, often in quite spectacular fashion. Greed is what lies at the heart of the profound reluctance of most African presidents to hand over power voluntarily and what causes many African regimes to end messily, often in coups. In most cases the democratic option is either absent or is not respected by the loser—the stakes simply are too high. Once one is out of the loop vis-à-vis access to state resources, the continuation of one’s status as a Big Man and hence the ability to enrich oneself becomes virtually impossible. Politics in Africa thus tends to be a zero-sum game.

    In simple terms, under a neopatrimonial system, the separation of the public from the private is recognized, at least nominally, and is certainly manifested in the symbols of the rational-bureaucratic state: there are flags, borders, governments, bureaucracies, and so on. These are what China’s leaders generally encounter when they invite delegations to Beijing or visit Africa. However, in practical terms, the private and public spheres are largely attached, and the outward manifestations of statehood are façades hiding the real workings of the system. This may prove a problem for Beijing as it attempts to craft coherent, long-term developmental relationships according to its stated foreign-policy goals in Africa, although short-term commercial exchanges of mutual benefit to African elites and Chinese corporations are evidently possible. In the critique of one informant, China’s “Africa” is really an assortment of regimes. This elision is a potential conundrum for Chinese actors in their engagements with the continent.

    Implications for Africa

    What does all the above mean to the African continent? Fundamentally, it is up to Africans to organize, connect, and ensure that their leaders enter into relationships with Chinese actors with open eyes. Repeatedly African governments have claimed that they cannot deliver development due either to a lack of capital and capacity or to interference from outsiders. Much of the Chinese engagement with Africa now comes with no strings attached (something for which Beijing has received much criticism for). But any failure to share growth and strengthen the whole economy utilizing receipts from Chinese engagement will not be the fault of “China” but that of the African elites. It is surely up to African states to regulate the activities of foreign (including Chinese) companies and ensure that extractive operations do not destroy the local environment or deny African workers their labor rights. Unfortunately, many of Africa’s elites post-independence have shown scant regard for their citizens’ constitutional rights in general; it is doubtful that they will suddenly spring into action where Chinese investment is concerned. Ordinary Africans can play a crucial role here by seeking to hold their leaders to account and critically examining the deals done in their name. This, rather than constructing “China” as die geel gevaar will most likely achieve results. It of course, will not be easy and the success rate will largely depend on both the objective conditions within each African polity and the ability of African civil society to build coherent transnational coalitions.

    Having said the above, Chinese involvement in Africa offers up new opportunities for the continent, but only if African actors approach such openings prudently. How Sino-African relations will play out in the years to come, which Africans and which Chinese will benefit or lose, in which states and economic sectors, are questions for future studies on the multifarious nature of Chinese engagement with the continent.

    * Ian Taylor is a Professor in International Relations based at St. Andrews University in Scotland

    * Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/


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