Europe and China in Africa


Emerging economies are increasingly looking to secure access to resources abroad. The most visible of these efforts can be seen in the expansion of Chinese activities in Africa,

which has recently become a hot issue. The initial responses of European economic analysts and political pundits alike were often critical of Chinese activities. They were seen as a threat to European and other Western interests. Such viewpoints, however, are one-sided and often ignored the African perspectives and the similarly dubious practices accompanying Western interventions in Africa.
In actual terms, the external interests from all kinds of actors are not fundamentally different from each other. Hence, China’s presence on the continent is in fact more of the same rather than fundamentally different. Nonetheless, China creates new options and alternatives for those local agencies engaging with foreign partners. The ultimate challenge, however, lies in not blaming any of the external factors as they pursue their interests in Africa. The issue is rather, under which constellation the majority of people in Africa would gain most from their natural resources, which currently mainly benefit the privileged local small elites and their external partners.
Due to the lasting legacy created by the colonial relations, Africa was long considered to be Europe’s backyard. While economic and cultural factors still to varying degrees determines the bilateral relations between African states and the former colonial powers, the situation has changed considerably since the end of the 20th century. With new actors increasingly present, such as the countries of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa), but also the visible growing influence of more than only emerging economies resulting in a transformation of the G8 into G20, new multi-polar realities   have also arrived on the African continent.
At the beginning of the 21st century the trade department of the European Commission in Brussels initiated negotiations for a re-arrangement of its relations with the countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific (ACP) through Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). The declared aim was a post-Cotonou agreement meeting the demands for compatibility under the World Trade Organization (WTO). The EPA negotiations have since then failed to come to a satisfactory new arrangement with many of the ACP countries.
Instead of the supposed completion in 2006/2007 they entered critical stages meeting the resistance of many among the designated partner states. They are afraid of losing out on trade preferences and feel that the European Union (EU) seeks to impose a one-sided trade regime in its own interests, which denies the declared partners the right to autonomous negotiations by re-drawing the map of regional configurations in Africa to comply with EU expectations. EPAs claim to be “trade as aid.”
In contrast to this noble declaration, they seem to be guided more so by the desire to secure continued access to relevant markets and exchange patterns not least in the EU’s own interest. The EU is accused of pushing through agreements on a number of sensitive matters such as investment, procurement and competition policy were rejected by developing countries at the WTO negotiations during 2003. EPAs are about much more than only the suggested reciprocity within a narrowly defined WTO compliance. Non-tariff barriers, such as environmental standards of sanitary and phytosanitary provisions which is the consumer protection policy of the EU, are crucial issues in the negotiations. It is of growing concern that these agreements reduce the policy space for African governments and that they could be used for exerting pressure in cases of political non-compliance.
The EU negotiated separate accords with different regions, and each country had to decide for one bloc. This divided hitherto established regional economic configurations. There is an inbuilt conflict between regionalism as it exists and the negotiations of new multilateral constellations. Countries might differ over the advantages between benefits from the continued protection of regional arrangements or the creation of individual preferential access to markets through other trade agreements.
As Henning Melber, a policy analyst of the Sweden based Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), the predictable outcome is a “shrinking of development space.” To avoid such pseudo-partnerships, a shift in balance ‘from the drive to homogenize trading commitments to other states towards granting states reasonable scope to choose appropriate levels of national protection’ would be required. A development strategy would therefore have to operate in a zone where internal as well as external (regional) integration reinforce rather than undermine each other.
Henning Melber further noted that the EPA negotiations had a negative impact on regionalism within the ACP group and its African member states. Regional organizations within Africa confronted capacity problems when entering the negotiations. A further complication is that all these regional configurations present a mix of Least Developed Countries (LDC) qualifying for preferential treatment and non-LDCs.
A likely result is the further fragmentation of the process of regional integration and a division of ACP states into regional groups, which might enable the EU to target its trade restrictions more effectively on products that it chooses not to liberalize. Instead, the EPA initiative has created new regional groupings that are inconsistent with, and undermine, existing African economic and political blocs. Reducing regional integration to trade liberalization undermines the broader socio-economic and political objectives of existing bodies.
The challenge to this effect is to contribute towards sustainable development by offering the African partners a globally conducive environment to secure them a fairer share in the world economy and the international policy making processes. To take such a responsibility seriously, the EU and other OECD countries would have to stop the pursuance of their protectionist trade policies. The currently dominating neo-liberal trade paradigm is to a large extent compatible with the interests of a political elite as well as an outward-oriented faction of capitalism both within the EU and although a lesser extent, in African states.
As Sven Grimm well explained in his 2009 study on the subject while some believe that ACP countries have in essence “nothing to gain and everything to lose from the EPA negotiations”, the EU also has more to lose than to gain, at least in terms of reputation and acceptance concerning its African policy. In the absence of sufficient capacity among the ACP countries to meaningfully negotiate the EU proposals vis-à-vis the “well oiled trade negotiation machinery of the EU” many among those at the receiving end felt forced into a process they actually resisted.
The Scottish development analyst, Robert Wade argued that the EU-ACP process, which unfolded within the EPA negotiations, was neither convincing evidence to support claims that the EU would not ignore the interests of the ACP countries, nor did it meet the criteria for coherence with other fundamental principles of development paradigms and policies of the EU and its member countries, such as support for regional integration. In times of an intensified rivalry between the “have lots” among the countries in this world to consolidate their particular interests within the regions of the “have-nots,” EU policy risks a credibility loss.
The new offensive pursued by China, however, is only the most visible sign of growing interests by external actors in the continent. Eventually, India, Brazil and Russia as well as a number of other actors such as South Korea, Turkey, Malaysia, Iran and Mexico, and also the oil rich Arab emirates are likely to add further pressure on the scramble for limited markets and resources.
The new stage of competing forces on the continent has resulted in a plethora of recent analyses dealing mainly if not exclusively with the Chinese impact and practices. With the exception of the current controversies around the EPAs and the emerging concerns about the United States Africa Command led further military control over the continent, the European and U.S. policies and interests seem to feature much less prominently. Such selected narratives tend to downplay if not ignore the damaging external effects, that the existing socio-economic imbalances and power structures have created and consolidated over a long period.
An important question which needs thorough analysis is the issue of whether the criticism raised against China and other potentially emerging competitors is more of an indicator of an increasing fear of losing out on one’s own interests? or being motivated by a genuine concern for the African people? The next piece of writing will deal with this issue