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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 EU engineered Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) and the emerging concerns about the United States Africa Command led further military control over the continent, the European and US 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. It appears at times, that 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 than for being motivated by a genuine concern for the African people.
A recent example of the new situation and the interests guiding decision- making was the discussion around the European–African Summit in December 2007 in Lisbon. Most EU member states were prepared to accept the presence of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe in violation of the sanctions on which they all had earlier decided upon.
This was partly motivated by the concern that his exclusion could result in a boycott of most African countries, weaken Europe’s status among African governments and thereby strengthen the Chinese influence. One does not need to balance the arguments and seek a convincing answer to the dilemma.
Suffice to not that China’s presence in Africa has far reaching effects visible also in this regard. Not being any longer subjected to an exclusive sphere of influence of the Western states, African countries gain new operational space. While this might strengthen the negotiating power and be in favor of economic interests seeking to achieve maximum gains, it also provoked the fear that the political consequences for democracy, human rights, and conflict prevention will be overwhelmingly negative.
But some, if not most, of the recent critical accounts of the Chinese expansion into African countries and societies and their collaboration with local elites have a hypocritical taste or bear traces of amnesia. After all, the Chinese penetration only adds to the new scramble for African resources.
Africa has emerged, in the view of many, as a vital arena of strategic and geopolitical competition and the final frontier for the world’s supplies of energy. On the historical background of the continent’s centuries of exploitation it should come as no surprise, that many among the wretched of the earth pin their hopes on a new actor, who, claiming to represent the global South might offer an alternative.
China is no newcomer to Africa. The question should be what is new about China in Africa. Since the 1950s, China has prioritized foreign assistance as a tool for geopolitical engagement. At its start, China’s foreign assistance program targeted socialist neighbors in support of their security and socioeconomic development. In the 1960s, China began looking beyond its neighbors, particularly to Africa.
Ever since the Bandung Conference in 1955, constituting an alliance of what was then emerging as the Third World, Chinese foreign policy included ambitions for a relevant role in the South. It pursued a proactive, interventionist policy with regard to African countries in its support for liberation movements and governments in newly independent states.
As the Chinese government implemented economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, policymakers began to explore new approaches to foreign assistance. China began to emphasize the economic aspects of assistance and use it to promote trade and mutually beneficial development projects in recipient countries.
Today, China sees itself as a leader among developing countries and prides itself on its philosophy and commitment to South-South cooperation and self-sustaining economic development. The government views this as being in direct contrast to the Western donor approach. China also explicitly rejects Western models of assistance that impose political and socioeconomic conditions on recipients. While China does invest heavily in countries where it has strategic economic and political interests, it maintains a policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries.
Despite continuous South–South collaboration and notwithstanding the socialist internationalism, so-called development aid had always been perceived as a Western approach to assist the African countries in a process termed development. It is often overlooked that China also plays a part in supporting African governments in their aspirations towards more sovereignty and development not only through rhetoric but also in practical terms.
Trade between China and Africa however continues to reproduce a classical skewed pattern: raw materials on the one hand (Africa), in exchange for value-added products on the other side (China). The global trade and exchange patterns have, despite new actors, not displayed any meaningful structural changes. Chinese trade and investment in African countries is not significantly different. The new exchange relations have not transformed the structure and patterns of production nor created a new international division of labor.
Chinese state and private owned multinational companies have mushroomed in Africa. They have left a major footprint in the energy sector, telecommunications and the construction sector in a growing number of African countries. By 2007 China already ranked as Africa’s third largest trading partner, behind the United States and France, but ahead of the United Kingdom, one of the major colonial powers in Africa during the colonial era.
Geographically, Chinese foreign assistance focuses on Africa and East and Southeast Asia, and the government reports that nearly 80% of funds through 2009 went to these regions. In Africa, China provides some level of assistance to 48 of the 54 states on the continent.
Although originally propelled by political and social interests, in recent years China’s assistance programs in Africa have been largely driven by economic development concerns. In 2000, China showcased its growing commitment to Africa by launching Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The Forum’s aim is to coordinate and promote economic collaboration across the continent, and it holds major summits with heads of government every three years.
Forum on China-Africa Cooperation helps China engage African partners on key economic and political priorities. The Chinese government has also strategically used the Forum’s summits to announce foreign assistance commitments to the region that build goodwill.
While China is careful not to call it aid, it clearly corresponds despite different packaging, priorities and nuances to Western development assistance. A series of agreements, often based on loans for the implementation of a wide range of mainly infrastructure projects testifies to the new Chinese engagement also as a donor country.