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China-Africa relations received unprecedented attention during 2006, both in terms of visibility and attention, writes Daniel Large. China’s involvement is important to consider, he says, because China will continue to need African resources, because of the increased trade and investment in Africa as a result of the relationship and because of an emerging Chinese development agenda on the continent. Unlike early Chinese explorers dating back to 1433, the current Chinese involvement in Africa is here to stay.

China’s Year of Africa in 2006 climaxed with the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Zhong Fei Luntan, or FOCAC). A friend aptly remarked, ‘Africa has taken over Beijing!’ Beijing mobilised to deliver high standards of Chinese hospitality and red-carpet treatment for 48 African delegations made up of political leaders, businessmen and accompanying journalists.

As the third ministerial and first heads of state conference, this FOCAC, between the 4–5 November 2006, was the most prominent such summit meeting after the first (Beijing, 2000) and the second (Addis Ababa, 2003). In many ways the first FOCAC was a trial run for this more lavish, ambitious and successful summit. It was carefully planned and impressively executed political theatre. Unlike six years ago, not just African but the world media was there to report. The FOCAC was a distinctively bilateral affair, contrasting with the more multilateral celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Bandung conference last year. Its staged choreography, including President Hu Jintao’s reception of individual Africa leaders in the Great Hall of the People, resonated with historical overtones of tribute, a contemporary version of ‘distant people’ arriving in ‘uninterrupted succession’. The extensive symbolic, monetary and political capital invested in FOCAC, its near flawless public execution and modern Beijing spoke of an increasingly self-confident China. Coming at the end of a year which has seen the dramatic irruption of China in Africa as a world media issue, topic of conversation and policy concern for governments, international organisations and civil society groups, it additionally, and very publicly, amounted to a declaration of arrival and positive intent: the Chinese government is serious about developing its African relations, and sought not merely to impress this upon its Africa guests but also the world at large. This forum cemented the official apparatus of cooperation and consolidated the foundations of development. Altogether, it formally marked the end of the beginning of China’s latest engagement with Africa, a process qualitatively different from the past and set to have potentially significant consequences for Africa.

This article briefly reflects on the current juncture of China-Africa relations at the end of an eventful 2006. After pointing to what is different about China’s return under new circumstances to Africa, it addresses key dynamics of current relations before identifying issues that are likely to increasingly come to the fore as the normalisation of relations proceeds and the exceptionalism that China still enjoys in its African relations wears off.

China’s return to Africa

Overall, 2006 was a watershed year for China-Africa relations in terms of the visibility of the subject and attention devoted to it. It featured a number of notable events, starting with the now-traditional tour by Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing (this time to Cape Verde, Liberia, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria and Libya) and the release of China’s Africa policy statement in January.

After visiting the United States, President Hu Jintao toured Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya in April, followed by Premier Wen Jiabao’s June trip to Egypt, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda in June. Besides FOCAC, the wide geographical extent of these high-level tours was reinforced by regional meetings. The second ministerial meeting of the Macau Forum on September 24–25 in Macau featured high-level representation from Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, East Timor, Brazil, Macau and China. The Conference of Sino-Arab Friendship, held in Khartoum at the end of November, established a permanent secretariat there under Arab League sponsorship and made a commitment to hold meetings every two years. China has arrived in Africa.

Rather than a sudden explosion into Africa, the Chinese engagement represents a return to the continent in a number of different ways. Strictly speaking, unlike 1433 when the Chinese sea voyages to Africa stopped, China never left Africa in the post-colonial period. The 1980s saw Africa downgraded in China’s foreign relations and China’s involvement in Africa was gradually reoriented into more commercial forms. Current relations should be traced to China’s renewed interest in Africa that was sparked in 1989 and consolidated with Jiang Zemin’s tour to six African countries in May 1996, a process that paved the way for the acceleration of the current phase after 2000.

Today’s unprecedented interest amongst the media, academic quarters, and a range of governments and international organisations evokes but exceeds the last comparable episode of attention, the wave of interest that followed Zhou En Lai’s African political safari in 1963–64. That was a very different context: rather than revolutionary prospects being ‘excellent’, as Zhou infamously declared in Mogadishu, the FOCAC proclaimed this to be the case for China and Africa’s ‘new strategic partnership’ for common prosperity. China’s return is occurring under new circumstances. A more developed China operates under conditions of enhanced interdependence. Gone is the Soviet Union.

Taiwan has lost the diplomatic recognition contest. Ideological disagreements have been superseded by political differences, especially on key concept of sovereignty, as China participates in the global economy and pursues better trade terms rather than an alternative economic socialist vision. Practical Chinese engagement, including Chinese companies, is still facilitated by and anchored within a state framework. The array of Chinese in Africa is more diverse, however, with an increase in entrepreneurial migration including to such locations as Cape Verde.

Why China in Africa Matters

The first reason why China’s return to Africa is important is that it is there to stay. With the addition of India and Asian states, this is part of what has been described as ‘the most dramatic and important factor in the external relations of the continent – perhaps in the development of Africa as a whole – since the end of the Cold War.’

China needs, and will continue to need, African resources more than previously. One commentator wrote in the early 1970s: ‘For the most part strategic minerals do not figure prominently in China’s quest for economic relations with Africa.’ Today a fundamental aspect underpinning relation is modern China’s need for a range of resources to supply its rising domestic and industrial needs. The most important sector by far is oil: some 30 per cent of China’s oil comes from Africa, its top suppliers being Angola (14 per cent), Sudan (7 per cent) and Congo-Brazzaville (4.4 per cent). China’s energy diplomacy (nengyuan waijiao) has mainstreamed as a foreign policy issue in the Hu Jintao period, which has seen an expansion and intensification of diplomacy not merely in Africa. ‘An unprecedented need for resources is now driving China’s foreign policy.’ The Chinese government’s relationship-building diplomacy with oil states is a means to enhance its energy security.

The second area of why China matters relates to increasing trade and investment in Africa, and the impact of this on political economy and for Africa’s international relations. Sub-Saharan trade remains proportionally not as significant as its world trade but has grown rapidly and if sustained, ‘the likely future impacts may be very substantial’. Total trade for 2006, according to official statistics, is expected to be over US450 billion, more than Africa–EU trade. This is spearheaded by the strategic pursuit of resources, around which investment is concentrated, and attempt to protect and enable guaranteed flow of raw materials for China’s energy needs. China’s foreign direct investment for Africa as of mid-2006 of some US$41.18 billion is mostly channelled to resource-rich countries, headed by Sudan and Nigeria.

As such, the thrust of China’s relations can be considered as fundamentally extractive, with other motivating factors, such as Africa as a market or production platform, less important at this stage of relations. The growth in African exports is thus predominantly confined to a growth of major commodity exports to China and India. As a developing power looking to grow within a globalising world, China has distinctive aspects in its African relations.

However, it ‘replicates in key ways developed state policies of disadvantageous terms of trade, exploitation of natural resources, oppressive labor regimes and support for authoritarian rulers. The commonalities of the PRC and Western approaches are therefore fundamental.’

A third area, albeit less significant for now, where China matters is its emerging development agenda in Africa and the considerable interest from different parts of Africa in applying aspects of China’s development experience in their own contexts. China’s legitimacy in questions of development rests in part on its own domestic record. It additionally benefits from a certain popular disillusionment with post-colonial development efforts in Africa, and the promise that China can deliver where ‘the West’ has not.

China’s official development discourse diverges: it is explicitly non-prescriptive, employing a language of ‘no strings attached’, equality and mutual benefit. It emphasises the collective right to development over the rights-based approaches focused on individual rights. It stresses the importance of political stability, internally-driven development appropriate to given conditions and promotes a sovereignty-based order. Finally, its non-intervention approach publicly separates business from politics.

Normalising China-Africa relations

Through experience, familiarity, and the progressive deepening of links, Chinese actors are becoming a more established part of Africa. This process whereby a range of Chinese interests become a more normal part of life is one that must necessarily erode the popular reputation for exceptionalism China has enjoyed, together with such particular cases as Darfur. In the political imaginary in different parts of Africa, projections of China are often made in these terms, especially during and after FOCAC, in keeping with the West’s historic tendency to alternate between seeing China as a great hope or threat.

The first broad area where this process is set to proceed concerns the political implications – internal and international – of China’s approach to political relations with African states and the limits of public adherence to non-interference. Giving a corporate marketing edge to a political position, one Chinese minister asserted: ‘Nonintervention is our brand, like intervention is the Americans’ brand’. However, the idea of separate business and political realms is deeply disingenuous. The Chinese approach business as functional politics. The ‘business, not politics’ approach depends on an ability to navigate political waters, will necessarily be enmeshed in politics and entail a logic of negotiation and conflict of a political (if not always openly so) nature. When it comes to protecting existing investments that have been established on the basis of political non-interference, China’s African involvement is likely to need to evolve once the boundaries of its ‘late-entry’ non-interference mode of engagement are tested and transgressed.

A second point is the need to engage the Chinese side better and to appreciate the evolving challenges China faces domestically and in the international context as it pursues its own development. There are reasons to suggest that ‘linear predictions of a manifest Chinese destiny may be flawed’.

Contextualising Africa within wider Chinese trade, foreign policy and participation in the global trade system, including the indirect impacts of China on Africa’s economic performance, is important. China’s trade with Africa is proportionally a small part (3 per cent) of its international trade and its energy needs are not neatly separable from those of global corporations (some of whom have invested in the Chinese oil majors operating in Africa).

There is the question of international responses. In the longer term China may reconfigure and could even break the monopoly of development concern and activity held by the current set of international organisations if its relations evolve to a deeper structural level of involvement. Ideas mooted about a Chinese Development Bank for Africa raises the question, for example, of how China may affect the international donor landscape of development finance in Africa. However, while keen to promote a range of development concerns, from aid, health, education, and even the environment, Beijing operates within prevailing international standards, including the Millennium Development Goals, and does not seek to challenge these. The competition China represents could catalyse new creative responses from the different layers of existing development architecture in Africa.

The final area concerns how different constituencies in Africa can respond. Can African governments develop appropriate responses and pursue these bilaterally, and also through more coordinated means through common positions via the AU? On the one hand, African governments can attempt to ‘take the opportunity of the competition between China and the West and obtain the best terms for our people.’ On the other hand, many African governments face the challenge of how to maintain good relations with and yet not become economically and politically dependent on China.


China’s return to African is a consequential subject that it is developing rapidly. However, despite wide coverage, not enough is known about concrete dynamics and significant knowledge gaps remain, including those exchanges that are less visible at present—commodity flows, educational, creation of new elites, or African business in China. Singling out an abstract ‘China’ in Africa is, of course, limited headline value and needs to be disaggregated to more properly reflect the dynamics of the Chinese engagement. In such topical countries as Sudan, where Petronas and ONGC-Videsh are important together with CNPC, China is part of what is better approached as an Asian-African axis the cumulative impact of which may be to effect a historic shift in the centre of political and economic gravity. However, as well as contextualising the seemingly meterioric rise of China in Africa, a historical approach would temper such crystal-ball gazing with caution about the limitations of long-term projects. Africa may have taken over Beijing during the 2006 FOCAC, but there is no inevitability about a transformative impact.

China bears a growing responsibility to match practice with its positive approach, to demonstrate it is different, rather than merely assert this with its official discourse which sets high standards and concomitant expectations of its official discourse. The issue of whether China can ‘prosper where others have failed’ could be inverted: can Africa benefit in longer term, more sustainable and more representative ways from China’s enhanced attention and links with Africa in ways that departure from established patterns with external powers? Through a historical lens, China has set the terms of its African engagement up to and largely including the present; ‘the onus rests upon African leaders to push the development agenda to the next level.’

There is thus a need to retain perspective of relations as they currently stand, and not exaggerate the importance of China but at the same time to recognise that this is consequential and not ephemeral. The idea, for example, that ‘“Empire” has begun to die before our very eyes, and Beijing will be written on its heart!’ may be indicative of current stratospheric hopes held in some quarters, but must be tempered. As President Nyrere’s recognised, while ‘equality and mutual benefit’ is a key tenet of relations, Tanzania-China relations was a partnership of ‘most unequal equals’, and this could also be used more generally to capture broader China-Africa relations.

At the end of China’s Year of Africa, as the beginning of its return to African ends, and as it becomes a normal phenomenon throughout the continent, there are good reasons to contemplate a possible Chinese decade of Africa.

China’s re-engagement reprises questions of power, states and constraints on development, including Africa’s unfavourable position in the world market, that are sadly familiar in Africa’s post-colonial history. Those with high hopes that China can benefit Africa as well as itself, for example, have to recognise its current economic involvement must change for broader development to occur.

• Daniel Large is a doctoral research student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London and has studied in China and conducted research in Africa. He is co-editing a book on China-Africa relations to be published early in 2007. Email: [email][email protected]

• This is a shortened version of an article by Daniel Large. The full version, including references, will be available in a forthcoming book to be published in January by Fahamu and called ‘African perspectives on China in Africa’. The full articles will also be made available as .PDF files on the Pambazuka News website.

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