Dr. Brautigam: China’s Engagement in Africa


Below are relevant sections on China’s engagement in Africa from an interview in the Mauritius Times with Dr. Deborah Brautigam, Associate Professor in the International Development Program at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D. C.

Dr. Brautigam is the author of over two dozen articles on foreign aid, the political economy of development, and the politics of economic policy. She is currently working on a book about small states and globalization, with Mauritius as the central case and a book on China’s ‘new’ aid program in Africa, and co-editing a volume on China and Africa. She spoke to the Mauritius Times about the economy, politics and China’s engagement in Africa:

You have also written quite extensively about China’s economic interest in Africa. Why is there so much unease with China’s presence on the continent?

There are a couple of sources of this unease. One is the media which is very interested with this subject. What sells papers, yours included probably, is sensationalism, so a lot of reportage of what China is doing in Africa tends to accentuate the sensational. The other thing that has caused unease is that it is all happening so quickly. China’s engagement in Africa has become very big, very quickly. Now somebody like me who has been looking at it for a long time can see that this has been building up more gradually. But if you only start looking at it two years ago, you would just say: China is suddenly there, it wasn’t there before. But that’s not true. They have been in Mauritius for a long time; investment has been coming in and construction companies have been here since 1972. It’s the same with any country in Africa except for Swaziland. I can understand the reasons why there is unease, but I’m an optimist about this engagement. I think it has a lot of potential.  

In your draft chapter prepared for ‘The Politics of Contemporary China-Africa Relations’, you quote Trevor Ncube saying: “If the British were our masters yesterday, the Chinese have come and taken their place.” However, in your conclusions, you write that “skilled indigenous African entrepreneurs can take advantage of contacts with Chinese firms to produce on industrial transition.” What this means for Mauritius is that contacts with such firms as Tianli will be a good thing in that it may help us to achieve the kind of industrial transition you refer to in the same chapter, isn’t it?

Yes, I do think so. If you look Mauritius in the past, you will see that there were joint ventures that were set up by the Taiwanese and Mauritian companies in the textile sector in the past and the knowledge that came with these industries was transferred to Mauritian investors. And also some Mauritian investors bought textile companies from people from Hong Kong who were leaving, so there was a lot of cross-fertilisation. The Export Processing Zone was a Mauritian idea but it was the people from Asia that brought the textile industry here. That was a good thing for Mauritius. It’s also a good thing that you’ve moved to a much more diversified economy, but I also think that the time is not finished yet for the textile industry. The Chinese are moving up, as the Indians are, and Mauritius is well positioned to take advantage of its historic links with the Indians and the Chinese to move up with them.  

There is nothing much that a country like Mauritius can do against the strength of low-cost producing countries like China. So we might as well join them, isn’t it?

In textile industry, the strategy is clear: you need to move upmarket, that’s exactly what you are doing, that is continue to work on valued added in the textile industry. You can probably compete in the business services sector and it seems to me that your government has already figured that out. I think you sold the Chinese on that, and they seem to agree that Mauritius can be a bridge between Asia and Africa, and you are well positioned for that. 

In other words, Mauritius is right about looking towards the East in the present world trade environment?

This is where you are lucky again, because you already have a lot of the factors necessary for success. You have a culture in which you have people from the two great powers that are rising now — India and China — you have indigenous Mauritians who come originally from those parts of the world and that’s a big advantage. The people who come from those countries feel comfortable when they come here. If you keep on doing what you are doing — you keep on with social stability, making sure that you are not going to have social upheavals, that you have stability in terms of the exchange rate (every time I come to Mauritius, the exchange rate seems to be the same), that’s important for people coming from outside. So in terms of how do you position the island to benefit from those connections, you are already doing that. And this idea of the government and the private sector working together and going on joint delegations abroad is a good thing. When the Prime Minister went to China, he took the private sector together along with him. Most countries of Africa don’t do that. 


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