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Today, it is being naive to question the ever increasing emergence of China as one of the biggest economic powers in the global economy. In 2010, after more than 30 years of sustained economic growth, China eclipsed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy. The country’s GDP has increased by an average rate of 10% since 1980, and it now boasts an economy larger than all of its BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) counterparts combined.
As a result of its massive economic influence, China has begun to play an increasingly assertive and outspoken role in international affairs. The country has become a vocal presence at G20 discussions, particularly since the onset of the global financial crisis. China is also a prominent member of many multilateral institutions, and a key partner in regional organizations including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum. China holds significant power among the BRICS countries. China also commands strong influence among low- and middle-income countries, and has established important economic ties in regions throughout the world.
According to China’s Foreign Aid document, China has given a total of 40.5 billion dollars in cumulative foreign assistance since 1950, and assistance increased at an annual rate of 29.4% between 2009 and 2015. China’s white paper of Foreign Aid portrays the country’s foreign assistance very differently than many external theories about its program. Prior to the release of the official document, some Chinese scholars believed that the country’s foreign assistance, particularly in Africa had grown so large that it was on par with the US and the World Bank.
While China employs a different approach to assistance than many Western donors, its policymakers draw a clear distinction between what they consider to be trade or foreign direct investment and what they consider assistance. The latter is solely comprised of grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans to other developing countries. The majority of China’s foreign assistance is provided through bilateral channels and focuses heavily on infrastructure, a development priority that many traditional donors have moved on from in favor of social programs.
Based on cumulative figures, the largest share of Chinese assistance since 1950, about 41%, has been allocated through grants, which are focused on infrastructure projects. Interest-free and concessional loans have generally focused on heavy infrastructure projects including transportation and energy, and industrial development. Geographically, Chinese foreign assistance focuses on Africa and East and Southeast Asia, and the government reports that nearly 80% of funds through 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 coordinate and helps China engage African partners on key economic and political priorities.
These types of approaches have led to some criticism that China is tying its assistance to domestic economic interests. As part of China’s philosophy of mutually beneficial development projects, the government often requires recipients to source procurement from Chinese firms. It appears that China has, at times, also required Chinese labor to be used on infrastructure development projects. However, these policies are not unique to China. EU and USA regulations often require that aid programs use EU and American technologies and food supplies.
While opinions differ, Chinese policymakers view its approach as a straightforward way to create win-win programs and build more equal development partnerships. China does not currently have a central agency for foreign assistance and its programs are overseen by a number of government ministries mainly by the Ministry of Commerce as a coordinating body, responsible for the formulation of assistance policies, regulations and project management and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on decision-making and implementation.
As indicated above, China has now become Africa’s most important partner both politically and economically. At this particular point, one very important issue worth thorough discussion is whether the China-African relationship is going to remain a win-win one, or in other words, whether China can help Africa to reduce poverty.
The answer to this very crucial issue has both global and bilateral dimensions. The global dimension includes the impact on global wages, interest rates, manufactured goods and raw material prices, and eventually on global imbalances and net investment positions. It’s a global dimension that is rarely addressed in the context of poverty reduction. Most analysts concentrate on the bilateral channels that link China and Africa, such as the extraction of raw materials, trade, investment, export credits, aid and migration. Mirroring that focus, many concerns about China’s development impact concentrate on the bilateral channel.
Emulating its own experience at the hands of Japan, China provides less in grant aid than in cooperation, but usually prefers a package involving low-interest, resource-backed loans, construction-for-equity swaps, occasional debt relief and training. Infrastructure, agriculture and industry are the pillars of China’s development policy; and like Japan or South Korea in earlier times, China is a developmental state actor that has used government-directed lending and a competitive exchange rate as major policy instruments for pursuing its own growth strategy.
Where blame is to be apportioned, it has generally centred on China’s scramble for extraction rights, which might intensify the resource curse in mineral-rich countries, on its violation of governance standards leading to a worsening of corruption, on its free riding on Western debt relief whilst itself extending new loans and, lastly, on the unfair corporate competition it has created through the use of subsidized capital and through a lack of respect for environmental and social standards.
A “global-channel” perspective would arguably yield a more positive assessment of China’s role in Africa. The recent data of OECD on African economy analyses Africa’s surge in relations with emerging partners like China that are now at the top table of economic decision-making alongside traditional partners from Europe and North America. The latest report’s insights into Africa’s expanding partnerships after the 2008/2009 crisis show a dramatic shift in the world’s economic centre of gravity away from OECD members towards the east and the south. Africa is benefiting from their investment, trade and aid, but also from the macroeconomic, political and strategic advantages the emerging countries can offer.
To maximize the development benefits of these new partnerships, African nations must first draw lessons from their dealings with traditional partners, and from the successful development experiences of the rising economic powers themselves. The economic independence that African economies are beginning to gain from globalization can best be sustained if they draw up their own national development policies and coordinate these either regionally or at a Pan-African level so as to negotiate more effectively with both their traditional and their emerging partners.