China’s Africa Strategy

In the beginning of May, 2008, the Asia Society in New York convened several experts to discuss the increasing complexity of Sino-African affairs. An audio file is now available on the Asia Society web site.

The participants and some of their key arguments were:

Victor Gao, Director of the China National Association of International Studies and a former vice president at the CNOOC.

Victor Gao defended China’s involvement in Africa against frequent charges of neocolonialism, human rights violations, support of totalitarian regimes, and the aggressive pursuit of oil and other natural resources.

He said that most of the attention in the West is focused on China’s role in Darfur and  Zimbabwe. Yet, China’s relations with African nations also have several elements rarely ever mentioned in the West:

1. China’s relations with African nations started in the 1950s when Russia broke off its relations with China, and the U.S. had an embargo against and did not recognize China. Thus isolated, China found very natural allies in the newly emerging and independent African countries. This was helped by the fact that China has had no colonialist history in Africa.

2. China’s special relationship with African nations is also reflected in various multi-lateral fora. For example,  without the support of African countries, China would not have gotten its permanent seat on the UN Security Council in place of  Taiwan in 1972. China’s membership in the UN has been an important factor in China’s recent rise as an economic power. Also, most African countries recognize China as the sole, legitimate government of China and do not recognize Taiwan (48 of 53 African countries). 

3. He stressed that historically China’s approach in Africa has been guided by a policy of non-interference which also treats African countries as equals. Gao also pointed out the importance of state-owned enterprises which are generally better equipped, and less risk-averse, to help governments in Africa to get their citizens out of poverty, transfer technical expertise, and take on huge infrastructure projects.

Harry Broadman, Economic adviser for the Africa Region at the World Bank.

In his recent book Africa’s Silk Road, available in PDF format on the World Bank web site, Broadman provides empirical evidence on how the two emerging economic giants of Asia— China and India— stand at the crossroads of the explosion of African-Asian trade and investment.

During the panel discussion, he contrasted China’s and India’s different approaches to Africa. While India has a long history of involvement in Africa dating back at least a century, China’s relationships only started in the 1950’s but have been all the more intense. Through its predominantly state-owned companies, China also engages in many large-scale state-to-state deals in Africa, whereas private enterprises account for most of India’s business in Africa. Socio-economically as well as politically, Indians in Africa are generally much more integrated than Chinese who often live in enclaves. Most Chinese firms operating in Africa also do not rely on local markets to source their inputs or to distribute their outputs. Instead, they are highly vertically integrated and source and distribute most of their inputs and outputs through corporate channels either from China or other Asian countries. 

Broadman also noted that Sub-Saharan Africa is a continent with 48 countries, all of which have countless differences, and all of which are dealing with one country, China, as a more or less homogenous entity.

He pointed out that some of China’s problems in Africa lie in conflating its foreign policy with commercial policy and that the notion that China invests in and trades with African nations for some magnanimous reason is somewhat naive. 

Finally, he bemoaned the lack of strong domestic champions on African issues and called for greater responsibility to be placed on African leadership and African civil society to effectively utilize Chinese investments.

Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, China and North East Asia project director at the International Crisis Group.

Kleine-Ahlbrandt argued that while China has often been criticized for the moral consequences its policy of non-interferce may have caused, the reason for some of China’s recent policy changes are not only because of such reputational criticisms. These changes are also coming about with China’s realization that a more sophisticated strategy is needed because a non-interference policy may be a great way to sign deals with African countries, but it is not a necessarily a good long-term strategy to secure the health of those investments. 

She also noted that China’s investment has put the ball in Africa’s court and that, while China has an Africa policy, Africa does not have a China policy.

A Q&A session with the audience followed the panel discussion.

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