How The Sino-African Relationship Is Influencing The Rest Of The World

China’s rapid advance into Africa has sparked a heated debate not only among ordinary citizens and analysts but also within the corridors of world power. The West accuses China of neo-colonialism while China responds that its policy of non-interference is just what the emerging world, including Africa needs. But does the growing relationship between China […]


China’s rapid advance into Africa has sparked a heated debate not only among ordinary citizens and analysts but also within the corridors of world power. The West accuses China of neo-colonialism while China responds that its policy of non-interference is just what the emerging world, including Africa needs. But does the growing relationship between China and Africa have larger, global strategic implications? Aya Imai argues that it does and that it is already shaping global policy.

China in Africa is no longer a myth but a fact of life. The dragon’s sensational arrival on the scene, which has been accelerated particularly after Beijing’s decision to initiate the “going global” (Zŏuchūqū) policy in 1999, has attracted the attention of investors, scholars, policy makers and a wider population, and has led to a phenomenal upsurge in the amount of relevant research and analysis.

Much of this has focused solely on either negative or positive repercussions of China’s growing presence on the African continent, and, as such, there has been an increasing call for a re-evaluation of Sino-African affairs not as a neatly demarcated area within contemporary international relations, but as a key turning point in the post-Cold War global order.

Of equal significance is the impact of this relationship on the policy-making processes of China’s neighbouring Northeast Asian states. Last month, China, Japan and Korea met in Beijing for the Trilateral Policy Consultation on Foreign Policy towards Africa, this being the fifth of its kind. This effort of linking foreign policies is quite an extraordinary accomplishment in a geopolitical setting as notorious as that of Northeast Asia.

Dominating views

Back in 2008, Chris Alden of the London School of Economics wrote: “It is the rise of China that has introduced new dimensions into relations between the two regions [Asia and Africa] and is itself indicative of a fundamental change in the pattern of international relations.” Statements along the same lines as Alden’s that strive to grasp the Sino-African relationship in a broader context have often been neglected amongst the mainstream commentaries in favour of those made by popular media or risk analysis consultancy, whose focus has been heavily inclined towards the latest updates of Chinese involvement in Africa’s political economy. For example, the latest $2.5bn deal between Sinopec and Total over the latter’s offshore Nigerian field and the new agreement to build the West African Coastal Highway signed by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), etc.

This is understandable given the fast-paced nature of the current Sino-African engagement and the volume of relevant information that comes with it. Google ‘China’ and ‘Africa’, and you will soon be confronted with more than 1.4bn search results that are enough to overwhelm anyone with countless detailed case studies, which eventually put one off from caring about a bigger picture.

This is why the commentaries on the Sino-African relationship can be broadly categorised into two contrasting views with both views mainly focusing on China and Africa per se.

The first view portrays China as a neo-colonialist or as a greedy and cold-hearted resource-scrambler, with which several Western high officials align closely. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is famous for her condemnatory speech against China’s “creeping colonialism” made during her 2011 tour in Africa: “We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave. And when you leave, you don’t leave much behind for the people who are there. We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa,” she said.

Some African politicians also echo such an overly pessimistic view, a good example being the current Zambian President, Michael Sata. The well-known story of the 2006 Zambian election, where Sata brilliantly played the anti-China card and threatened Beijing by promising an official recognition of Taiwan, is too often elaborated as a brave attempt to resist the repetition of colonial history. Look more closely, however, and one will find that the Sinophobic discourse is much less prominent in Sata’s recent statements. During the 2011 campaign, Sata signalled that he would continue the Zambian government’s support for foreign investment from China. Moreover, his first official appointment at State House was with China’s ambassador to Zambia, Zhou Yuxiao. With this, Deborah Brautigam, professor at Johns Hopkins University, points to Sata’s pragmatism and analyses that he does acknowledge the importance of the Sino-Zambian engagement notwithstanding tensions surrounding the relationship.

Brautigam is an advocate of the second view that praises China’s role in boosting the economy and reducing the impoverished state of the continent as a whole.

This view is employed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the backbone theory to legitimise China’s prominence in African affairs. The discourse of “win-win” relationship, which was promoted by Hu Jintao throughout the 10 years of his tenure in office, has been made in the context of the South-South solidarity that can be traced back to the Bandung Conference in 1955.

A shared set of concerns was sustained through initiatives like the Non-Aligned Movement for a brief period of time before the Cold War rhetoric came into play. It is therefore important that claims such as “shared colonial history” and “long-standing friendship” are treated cautiously and that they are understood within a broader understanding of international relations.

Key turning point

So, from a broader context, how is the Sino-African engagement affecting the world today? Experts of international relations teach us that as globalisation intensifies, both in terms of speed and depth, the status of states is no longer subject to their military capability nor superiority, but to their competitive capacity in the capitalistic marketplace.

Felix M. Edoho of Lincoln University argues that globalisation has contributed in creating a new cartography, whereby strategic realignment of sovereign states takes place largely on the basis of economic interests and less on military interests. Therefore, although the US will retain its position as the predominant military power for the next 20 to 30 years – primarily owing to its overwhelmingly vast expenditure on research and development of weapons (85% of the world’s total) – its desire to sustain American exceptionalism and unilateralism may eventually become a futile endeavour. From this line of thought, it is clear that the grandiose economic capacity of Beijing will contribute in shifting the global order away from its current shape in which Africa will play a pivotal role, enabling China to manifest its global ambition.

Some claim that we are already witnessing the shift within the current engagement between China and Africa. It is useful to remind ourselves that since the start of the slave trade and for much of the 20th century, an overwhelming number of outside imports of goods and services into Africa have originated mainly from both Europe and North America. It was only in 2009 that the established status of these two giants as Africa’s biggest trading partners was casually swept away by China. Transactions between China and Africa have risen from $10bn in 2000 to over $160bn in 2011 – an astonishing record of growth in a decade, which both Chinese and African leaders are committed to further facilitate by initiatives such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

President Hu Jintao pledged $20bn in credit for Africa over the next three years at the Fifth FOCAC meeting held in Beijing last year. As it is estimated that China will become the world’s largest economy by 2025, “it is quite a shift in the balance of economic power we are going to see in the future,” says Asa Johansson, senior economist at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Indeed, standardised prescriptions written over as the “Beijing Consensus”, based on the principle of non-intervention, are increasingly overriding the Washington Consensus that stresses accountability, human rights and democratic practice.

It goes without saying that the underlying norm of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) agenda, as well as the African Union’s founding constitution, inevitably derives from the Washington Consensus. So for African leaders, who are physically and intellectually exhausted by two decades of economic “reform”, it is only natural to reference China’s economic development model as an alternative form of development agenda in conjunction with the conventional models of poverty reduction.

What baffles these African leaders is that China has risen from backwardness to staggering economic growth without following the prescriptions of the West. What is more bewildering is that China managed to do so by fully utilising the global supply chains.

It is in this context that the previous Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade argued: “When it comes to China and Africa, the EU and the US want to have their cake and eat it. In an echo of its past colonial rivalries, European leaders and donor organisations have expressed concerns that African nations are throwing their doors open too wide to Chinese investors and to exploitation by their Asian partners. But if opening up more free markets is a goal that the West prizes – and extols as a path to progress – why is Europe fretting about China’s growing economic role in Africa?” Criticisms in line with Wade’s have to be considered seriously. They illustrate how China’s ventures in Africa are judged according to different standards to the ventures of the Western democracies.

Regional impact

The most striking difference in the ways in which Europe and Asia relate to Africa is by far the degree of direct influence on policy making. For many of the European states, most notably Britain and France, events that take place in Africa have significant implications on the central government as much as domestic politics. Consequently, securing their long-standing stakes in the African continent becomes a major political concern to an extent Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul could never experience.

It also goes without saying that the region’s troubled past has been, and continues to be, one of the defining features of East Asian international relations, with largely negative regional consequences for alliance ties and regional institution-building. What then explains the presence of the annual trilateral meeting on Africa? A possible response could be that Japan and Korea are weary of the impact China will have on the Washington Consensus. As members of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), Tokyo and Seoul bear tacit consents from the West to restrain China’s presence as an “irresponsible” donor. The question is whether both parties really do see China as a threat. There is no doubt Tokyo has acknowledged the Chinese influence in resource-rich African states, particularly Angola, where Japanese oil firm Teikoku holds an oil extraction licence in the Cabinda North block.

Accordingly, at the latest Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in 2008, former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) sought to outbid what China has to offer by pledging $4bn of soft loans, doubling of grant aid and technical cooperation over the next five years.

In spite of all this, research by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs shows that Japan is rapidly changing its attitude towards the Western donor club and is increasingly following the Chinese footsteps. Under the auspices of JICA, Japan is currently planning to establish two special industrial zones in Zambia in partnership with Malaysia – a well-known strategy employed by Beijing to ease its economic transaction with Africa. “Japan is now betting on two horses,” comments the Zambian economist Yusuf Dodia.

Korea is eager to catch up to its regional counterparts, despite the fact that until very recently it did not acknowledge Africa’s political weight. In fact, it was only in 2006 that the former President Roh Moo-hyun made a presidential visit to an African country for the first time since 1982, a few months prior to the first Korea-Africa Forum (KAF) in Seoul.

Korea’s hastiness to recoup its loss as well as its diplomatic prematurity on the African continent collided with local politics in 2009 when the Madagascan government decided to nullify the land acquisition agreement previously signed with the Korean construction company Daewoo Logistics. Nonetheless, Seoul is making steady progress and learning from its mistakes. In November last year, it was announced that the Korean government would increase its annual pledge via the Economic Development Cooperation Fund (EDCF) from the current sum of $0.2bn to $0.3bn by 2015. The Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) also promised to expand its operation by focusing on the rural community-based “Saemaûl Undong (New Community)” project.

In sum, the Sino-African relationship is influencing Tokyo and Seoul in a way to gear their policy strategies away from the Washington Consensus model. If Asia and Africa are starting to comply with “unconventional” rules, are we then just a step away from “Africa without Europeans”? However, one cannot stop wondering about the effect of traditional Sinocentrism on global order if China is to rise from the periphery together with Africa.

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