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While China Scrambles Africa Builds Hope

Dr. Nivedita Ray was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • November 09, 2006

    While commemorating 50 years of China's diplomatic ties with Africa, the China-Africa Summit, held on November 4-5, 2006 adopted a three-year action plan to deepen the existing political and economic links. This Summit, being one of the largest summits ever hosted in China's modern history, not only reflects the importance China places on its relations with Africa, but also clearly illustrates the value that the continent now attaches to this emerging Asian power vis-a-vis the West. The enthusiasm with which African leaders have attended this summit in large numbers seems to indicate that Africa has pinned a lot of hope and expectations on China for its future prospects, though it remains to be seen how far the continent will be benefited from this Summit.

    This Summit, an outcome of six years of booming bilateral trade and increased co-operation in various sectors, is set against a time when criticisms and concerns abound regarding China's role in Africa. Perhaps, through this Summit, China is trying to project its influence in Africa as well as its interest and concern for not only promoting trade and investment, but also Africa's development. However, if it is genuinely meant for Africa's development, this Summit is not the first of its kind. In the past various summits have been held to help Africa develop. Countries like the UK, France, and Japan have also hosted Summits for the same purpose. The Afrique-France summit, the UK Commonwealth Summit, the Tokyo Summit on aid and development, and many other gatherings have all been endeavours made for alleviating poverty and underdevelopment in Africa. However, till date, none of these summits have led to any substantial success except for the fact that a few countries have shown some signs of growth. So the question remains as to whether this grand China-Africa Summit is articulating something very different and special that will benefit Africa in real terms. But the answer is not very simple.

    The three-year action plan and eight-point development agenda speak of various offers and initiatives taken in various sectors, which, to a certain extent, do offer some hope for Africa's development. For instance, negotiations on some 2500 trade deals, doubling of China's aid by 2009, increasing tariff-free import items from the least developed nations, providing US $3 billion in preferential loans and establishing a special fund of $5 billion to encourage Chinese investment in Africa, have been greatly welcomed by African leaders. But will this really constitute a panacea or "neo-colonialism" which China has been accused of. Although China has been claiming that it is seeking a relationship that is win-win for both parties, there are concerns regarding Africa becoming more dependent even as China gears up to access Africa's abundant raw materials and developing the continent as a market for Chinese goods.

    With political colonization out of the way, China is today undoubtedly trying to consolidate its economic influence in the region. Since 2000, trade between China and Africa has nearly quadrupled, from $ 10 billion to $ 50 billion. For Africa, China is the third largest trading partner next only to the United States and France. Africa has a slight surplus in its trade with China, to which it exports mainly oil, minerals, and imports manufactured goods. In the coming years this trade pattern is likely to continue. This is quite apparent from the kind of initiatives that have been taken in the recent summit. China will try to secure more natural resources to feed its growing economy and at the same time will seek to develop fresh markets for its manufactures. Already Chinese businesses and investment, driven by state money, are widespread all over Africa. In Sudan, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon, China is pursuing equity oil. For cotton it is dependent on Burkina Faso and Mali, while Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo serve as sources for platinum and copper. It acquires timber from South Africa, Gabon and Cameroon. It is therefore no wonder that China is holding a Summit of such magnitude and talking of Africa's needs and development.

    What the summit talks of is more about aid and loans, which the African leaders are very excited about. For leaders like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Sudan's Omar al Bashir, it is especially important because China provides them, unlike the west, without any strings attached. Other African leaders found the summit a great opportunity to expand trade and promote co-operation in the business circle. They felt that civil collaboration is necessary for the Africa-China co-operation to flourish. Most of the leaders also articulated the need for China's investment in agriculture, which is wanting in modernization, infrastructure, energy and technology sectors, in order to build up an effective partnership. However, what was missing were concrete plans and strategies from the Africans for China to help them out in maximizing the benefits. Consequently, this will only lead to squandering of resources in return for some incentives. Eventually, Africa will lose out in terms of not being able to utilise its own resources for developing its indigenous industries. There are already apprehensions regarding the competition Africa is facing from cheap Chinese labour and goods. It is therefore essential that Africans defend their own interests, which requires the right kind of strategies and plans as well as the building up of human resources. More importantly, they also need to draw lessons from Chinese successes as a fast developing economy.

    Thus, this Summit, while focusing on future China-Africa co-operation, speaks more of Chinese plans and strategies to engage Africa rather than any specific African plans, except for a few needs that have been articulated by African leaders. While China has, through various initiatives and offers, generated hope about the future prospects of the people of Africa, African leaders are yet to come out with clear-cut proposals on how to reap the maximum benefit out of these Chinese initiatives. Moreover, with regard to the aid and loans that China has promised to provide to Africa, its supposed beneficiaries - the common people - have little or no say about how these will be utilised. One can only hope that these funds would not wind their way into the private banks of corrupt regimes that China is propping up through its no strings attached policy.

    If China's offers have to be gainfully realized, Africa needs to make its own homework first by formulating strategies that suit its needs and interests instead of simply accepting plans provided by others. Otherwise, Africans will be left only with attending summits hosted by China, while the latter, with its sheer art of diplomacy and negotiating strategies, acquires more and more resources and markets.