Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Not so malign

There are upsides to Chinese influence in Africa

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While a Google search on China’s internal development yields at least 2,230,000 hits, the impact of China on the face of development and foreign relations globally is all too often missed.

In particular the Chinese seem to be the new kids on the block across Sub-Saharan Africa. As the Chinese economy has rapidly expanded, so too has its demand for energy. And Africa’s impressive endowment of natural resources has exercised a strong pull.

In fact China’s trade with Africa has approximately quadrupled in the last four years and it is now the third largest trading partner on the continent. China is the world’s second largest consumer of oil after the United States. Almost a third of its oil imports come from Africa (exporting countries include Angola, Sudan and Nigeria). China has also seen Africa as a potential market for its own products, particularly textiles.

So, China seems to have a predominantly economic relationship with the African continent. Yet there are important political implications. China’s drive to secure access to raw materials is accompanied by a big political and diplomatic push. This has, for example, meant a marked increase in high level visits between Chinese and African leaders.

But it has also meant an increase in soft loans and arms sales, combined with Chinese adherence to ‘non-interference in internal affairs’. In practice this can translate into support for regimes which abuse human rights, fail to tackle corruption or suffer from bad governance. In order to strengthen its economic relationship with resource rich countries, China has been willing to export arms to countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, or to offer soft loans without political conditions to countries like Angola who are under international pressure to make governance reforms.

Any attention has focused on this more sinister side to China’s growing role in Africa. But this overlooks the need to strengthen the capacity of Africans themselves to make the relationship with China work to their advantage.

In many ways, Africa’s own thinking on governance may be far ahead of China’s. The transition from the Organisation of African Unity to the African Union (AU) involved an explicit rejection of the idea of unconditional sovereignty. In place of ‘non-interference’ the AU adopted ‘non-indifference’: an unwillingness to do nothing when gross human rights abuses occur on the continent.

Potentially, the AU could play an important role in coordinating African responses to China, and building a joint commitment to good governance on the continent. Indeed it is significant that in August of this year the United Nations (UN) Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1769. This resolution commits to a UN-AU hybrid peacekeeping force in Darfur. This force should be 26,000-strong – more that quadruple the current AU presence in the Darfur region.

Having previously vetoed UN resolutions calling for troop deployment in Darfur, this is an important shift for the Chinese Government. A key consideration is thought to have been the involvement of the AU and the commitment to a peacekeeping force with a “predominantly African character”.

It would therefore be wrong to demonise China, as some of the recent speculation about her global role has done, but right to be cautious about the recent expansion of Chinese influence. African and western leaders must now walk a tightrope, ensuring that they are not naïve about the pitfalls of China’s support for certain authoritarian regimes and that the benefits of increased investment and competition for political influence are not overlooked. In the long run, China’s increasing role in Africa may in fact create a new triangular dynamic in which Africans benefit from increased competition for investment, aid, trade and political influence.

Certainly isolating China is unlikely to produce changes in Chinese policy and may lead to negative entrenchment. Instead, new forms of engagement with China need to be developed, and these will need new carrots and new sticks if they are to be successful.

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Leni Wild

is an associate manager at APCO Worldwide, a councillor in Lambeth and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre. He writes in a personal capacity.

1 comment

  • Leni Wild writes a very interesting piece, staking out a much more balanced position than one usually finds. What is especially useful about this piece is that, while recognizing problems at hand, it proposes a pragmatic and realistic form of constructive engagement. The question is whether the temptation for the financial benefits that may accrue from business with China may be so great that African leaders will toss notions of good governance to the wayside. What also remains to be seen is the extent to which Chinese investment enables African economies to grow in ways that strengthen the capacity of their citizens and governments.

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