Xi Trip Highlights China’s Africa Influence

Xi Jinping’s first overseas tour as China’s president is set to commence this weekend. After a stop in Russia, President Xi will travel to Africa – a continent where Beijing’s influence is a subject of much debate – to visit Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of the Congo. After providing context about Beijing’s changing relationship with African states, AFP quotes Xi on China’s commitment to maintaining “friendly relationships with all African countries:

In an interview with media from BRICS nations, he said Beijing valued “friendly relationships with all African countries, no matter whether they are big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor.”

“No matter whether it is rich or poor in resources, China treats it equally and actively carries out pragmatic cooperation that benefits both sides,” he said.

Xi arrives Sunday in Tanzania, where China is the second-largest foreign investor with interests in agriculture, coal, iron ore and infrastructure and he will give a major speech on relations with Africa.

Tanzanian daily The Citizen examines what Xi’s stop in the country means, noting that local politicians have been urged to ensure that Tanzania gains from the relationship with Beijing:

Tanzania is rich in minerals, timber and natural gas and there are indications that oil could be discovered in the near future–all of which China would need for its industries.

Tanzania could, in turn, benefit from development finance that is crucial in building infrastructure and agro-processing industries, especially in view of the fact that Chinese aid tends to have lesser conditionalities than that from the West.

Mr Xi’s visit to Tanzania and two other African nations has been described as “a trip of friendship and inheritance” that is expected to broaden cooperation and map out future prospects, according to Chinese analysts. But the Kikwete government has been advised to push harder if it is to accrue more benefits for Tanzania.

China’s investment of cultural, economic, military and media resources in Africa has long met with mixed opinions. While some Africans express approval of what they see as a mutually beneficial relationship or point out contrasts between the Western imperialism of yesterday and Beijing’s comparatively transparent campaigns, others have been known to build political campaigns around populist resentment of Chinese investment. From abroad, Beijing has both been criticized by politicians for exercising modern-day colonialism in African states, and defended by think tanks against that critique.

The Economist provides an overview of China’s economic relationship with Africa, suggesting that fears of Chinese “neocolonialism” on the continent may be far-fetched:

China’s image in Africa, once marred by suspicion, is changing. Businessmen facing Chinese competition, especially in farming, retail and petty trading, still complain. In Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, new rules restrict the industries or areas in which Chinese can operate. Yet a growing number of Africans say the Chinese create jobs, transfer skills and spend money in local economies. In small countries, where the Asian behemoth was most feared, the change is especially noticeable. Michael Sata, president of Zambia and a long-standing China critic when in opposition until 2011, changed his tune once in office. Last year he demoted his labour minister, who had lambasted Chinese and Indian business interests. He also sent his vice-president to Beijing to discuss links between his Patriotic Front and the Chinese Communist Party.

African democracy has so far not been damaged. China turns a blind eye to human-rights abuses, but it has not undermined democratic institutions or conventions. In Zimbabwe, it continues to work with President Robert Mugabe, but it has also developed relations with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, inviting its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, to Beijing. Chinese leaders accommodated the democratic change of power in Senegal last year, including the loss of power of President Abdoulaye Wade, who had switched Senegal’s diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2005.

Other popular fears triggered by China’s growing presence have also proved hollow. It has not stoked armed conflict. On the contrary, China has occasionally played peacemaker, although motivated by self-interest. Sudan and South Sudan are both big Chinese trade partners. When they hovered on the brink of war last year, China intervened diplomatically along with other powers.

Meanwhile, China’s state media continually emphasizes Beijing’s role promoting “peace, stability, prosperity and development” in African countries.

For more on the debate surrounding Chinese influence on the African continent, see “Documentary and Debate on China in Africa,” via CDT. For a look at Chinese migrants in Africa, see “Africa’s Chinese Diaspora: Under Pressure,” also via CDT.