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China's Power Projection in Africa

Dr. Abanti Bhattacharya is Associate Professor at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi. Prior to this she was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
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  • November 07, 2006

    The two-day China-Africa Summit on November 4 and 5, 2006 in Beijing, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of China-Africa diplomatic ties, created a new milestone in China's relationship with the African continent. Hailed as a new type of strategic partnership, this gathering of forty-eight African countries - the biggest ever since the founding of the People's Republic of China - was concluded by a declaration and an action plan for 2007-2009. The main thrust of the Summit, as stated by the Chinese President Hu Jintao, was political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win co-operation and cultural exchange. In many ways the Summit has explicit implications for China's rise as an alternative power centre in the world.

    China has incrementally cemented its traditional ties with the African countries. An article in Beijing Review mentions that in the fifty years of China-African diplomatic relations, the two sides have seen more than 800 high-level visits, including 160 visits from China to Africa and 676 visits from 51 African countries to China. Before the 1990s, China's support to the African countries was mainly in the form of free assistance in building railways, textile mills, hydropower plants, stadiums, schools and hospitals. With regard to trade, statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce show that the two-way trade volume has rocketed from US $4 billion in 1995 to $39.74 billion in 2005. China exported goods worth $18.68 billion and imported goods worth $21.06 billion in 2005, with the trade surplus on the African side reaching $2.38 billion. By 2005, China's foreign direct investment in Africa totalled $1.18 billion with more than 800 Chinese enterprises operating in Africa. From January 2005, China had reduced tariffs on 190 African products to zero.

    At the beginning of this year, Beijing unveiled an African Policy Paper on January 12, 2006 titled 'China's African Policy,' which states that "China will do its best to provide and gradually increase assistance to African nations with no political strings attached." This was followed by several high-level visits from China to African countries, first by President Hu Jintao to Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya between April 24 and 29, 2006, and then followed by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to Egypt, Ghana, the Republic of Congo, Angola, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda between June 17 and 24, 2006. Earlier in 2000, China-Africa relations were institutionalised with the founding of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) to enhance bilateral exchanges and co-operation. The present FOCAC meeting was the third in succession and was raised to the Summit level indicating a deepening of Africa-China relations. On the economic front, Xinhua reports that China-Africa bilateral trade is expected to reach $50 billion in the current year and is projected to top $100 billion by 2010. At the opening ceremony of the summit on November 4, Hu Jintao pledged that China will double its aid to Africa by 2009 and cancel more debts owed by poor African countries. Hu also vowed that China would further open up its market to Africa by raising the number of tariff-free products from the current 190 to 440. All these indicate China's determined steps to deepen its relations with Africa and emerge as a major power to which the world could look up to.

    China realises the important role of Africa in emerging global realignments in politics and trade. It also understands the critical needs of the African countries like increased trade, investments, debt-relief and development assistance programme. At the same time, China's common history of struggle against imperialism and colonialism has injected a kind of sensitivity in its policies towards the African countries. Both China and Africa give similar priority to notions of sovereignty and non-interference. Both realise the need for economic development based on mutual benefit. Africa has rich oil and mineral resources and a huge market, but suffers from economic backwardness and lacks funds and technology for development. China, on the other hand, has achieved remarkable economic growth and as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council wields a veto power. But with its rapid rise there is an ever-growing demand for steady supplies of oil and mineral resources. In this context, China has been able to converge its own needs with Africa's interests. Chinese State Counsellor, Tang Jiaxuan, observed that "economically, China and Africa should be partners of cooperation and should draw on each other's strength to work for mutual benefit." China has thus wisely formulated its foreign policy towards Africa on the principles of non-interference and mutual benefit, which is attractive and beneficial to the African countries.

    China's African policy is based primarily on the motto of co-operation without intervention. This non-interventionist principle engenders a three-point approach: treating the African countries as equals, adhering to non-interference in their internal affairs, and respecting the African nations' road of development. Unlike the US, which links development with democracy, China does not dictate terms for political or economic reforms and only expects affirmation of the 'one China' policy. This non-interventionist and non-ideological foreign policy has made China an attractive country for African countries to engage with. In fact, African leaders find the 'Chinese model' more appropriate than the Western model of development, given similar concerns for poverty alleviation, rural development and economic growth. Further, unlike the West, China provides alternative technologies and fair trade and investment to Africa. On the issue of Sino-African energy co-operation, unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese companies have even ventured into risk-ridden regions of Africa to tap oil resources. Moreover, unlike Western companies, Chinese enterprises not only tap energy resources but also invest in building local infrastructure and launch projects in agriculture, power generation and telecommunications.

    China's Africa policy is a part of its proactive foreign policy, which is aimed at not only protecting its security interests but also at shaping its security environment in a manner that is conducive to its national interests and growth. This strategy seeks to build up an alternative international order, which would distinctly pose a formidable challenge to US unilateralism and global hegemony. It also provides a new vision to developing countries, which wish to move away from the US-dominated world order to an alternative international order. China has entered in a big way in areas that have long been the domain of the United States. The recent high level visits by Chinese leaders to African countries testify China's expanding influence in the US's backyard. It is making inroads in a peaceful manner based on the strategy of a non-interventionist and non-ideological foreign policy. Some scholars are also talking about a 'great game' being enacted in Africa between China and the US for access to natural resources. China has already emerged as Africa's third largest trading partner, next only to the United States and France. The first Africa-China-US dialogue held in South Africa in August 2005 is a reminder of the possible security implications of growing Chinese and US influence in Africa. Though the dialogue does not foresee a direct conflict of interests between China and the United States, China's rising commercial interests in Africa heighten the prospects of conflict in future. Statistics show that China imported 28 per cent of its oil from Africa in 2005, compared to the US import of only 15 per cent in the same year.

    Apart from competition for oil and resources, China is also blamed for pursuing neo-colonialism in the continent. For instance, cheap Chinese textile goods have flooded African markets creating fierce and unfair competition for African textiles. However, China has brushed aside such allegations and called it just another form of 'China threat' theory propounded by the West. China claims that its co-operation with Africa is based on a win-win formula. Africa too feels that China is a lesser evil than the West or the United States, since the latter tend to ostracize many of the autocratic governments on the continent by citing human rights violations, corruption and bad governance. Further, African countries feel that China is helping them in a big way with capital and technology. For instance, Chinese investments have helped Sudan to change its status from an oil importing to an oil exporting country. Further, a glance at the Action Plan (2007-2009) suggests that its focus is not only on energy resources but that a large part is dedicated to joint co-operation in education, environmental protection, promoting tourism, and fighting HIV/AIDS.

    China's African policy, couched in altruistic notions, has thus become attractive to African countries. China has successfully projected itself as a responsible great power showing the path for development and growth to the lesser developed nations. It is fast emerging as a new power centre that provides an alternative to the US.