A Tale of a Country Courting a Continent – Part I

People, especially those who have personally visited China, cannot help but be amazed by the country’s extraordinary socio-economic transformation. China’s conscious but quiet rise to prominence, the fastest ascent in human history, has caught the world by surprise. No wonder the West dubbed China’s success a “miracle”! The country thus earned great admiration and respect from all circles around the world, even from the most skeptical ones.

China’s economic might and robust growth, which only recently started to feel the effects of the international financial meltdown, is the envy of the West and a source of inspiration for many in the developing world, including in Africa. I, for one, would wish to see such a dynamic pace and scale of transformation and level of development being replicated on the African continent.

Of course, not everything is as rosy as it first seems.

As a superpower on the rise, China has its own set of challenges to face, such as ensuring equity in the distribution of socio-economic growth and dividends across the country, addressing environmental concerns, creating meaningful employment for its youth, and ensuring better safety, quality control, and standards, to name but a few.

But there is no doubt in my mind that China has quietly and carefully planned its big entrance onto the international stage.

China was ready for the world long before the world was ready for it.

China’s advent has totally shaken up the status quo, maintained until now by the West at its helm, and heralded the dawn of a new world order, in which China is set to take the position of world leader. In this grand scheme of things, Africa seems to represent an ideal stepping stone for China’s real debut on the international scene.

At the turn of the 21st century, China made a bold and unprecedented move by striking a strategic alliance with Africa, signalling a new era in international relations. Africa thus became the focus of China’s interest, as a region deemed strategically vital for advancing Chinese ambitions as an emerging superpower.

When I first came to know about the ‘China-Africa relationship’ back in 2003, the question that leapt into my mind was: ‘How can a single country, China, form a partnership with an entire continent, Africa?’ But as I became more informed, I realized that it was China’s interest in Africa that is driving the partnership, with Africa entering into the relationship, almost despite itself.

China’s explicit statement and rapid advances on the African continent sparked heated debates and criticisms from the West, which has always considered Africa as its stronghold. Africa is yet again the scene of clashes, a “clash of the Titans”, the West against the emerging world leader from the East, that is to say China.

Yet again, Africa features on the geopolitical map and its strategic importance has taken center stage in the world’s affairs, not because of its own doings but as a result of competing interests between the two most powerful blocks.

Within the past decade, China has gradually replaced the West to become the partner of choice of Africa. The West’s reaction is therefore quite understandable given the fact that China’s increasing involvement in Africa poses a direct threat to the West’s vested interests and influence on the continent.

However, the international discourse between the pros and cons of China’s engagement in Africa seems to be totally oblivious of one crucial aspect: Africa’s say about the relationship.

Africa has thus far been reactive, rather than proactive, to China’s surge in interest and its far-reaching implications for the continent. Africa, as a continent, was caught completely off guard.

In the initial stages, some in Africa welcomed and hailed China as “Africa’s friend”, who had come to the continent’s rescue to offer concrete assistance. They saw in China a better alternative to the West and a model to emulate. But as the fascination quickly wore off, a growing number of African citizens have started to voice well-founded and genuine concerns on a wide range of issues pertaining to Africa-China relations.

Being an Afrizen myself, I was at first besieged by fear and reservations as to the true intentions of China in Africa. Initially, some of the questions that ran through my mind were: What does this wind of change mean to Africa and what unforeseen repercussions will follow in its trail? Will this prove to be yet another invasion of Africa by a foreign superpower? What are the trade-offs?

But on further reflection, I have come to the realization that China is neither “good” nor “bad” for the continent, but is a partner just like any other in the world with its own agenda and its interests to defend. In fact, I believe that China’s advent might be a blessing in disguise if Africa learns how to relate to China – and to the rest of the world – and play its part in maximizing the benefits of its relationships for its citizens.

But, how ready is Africa for China?

As the partnership between Africa and China is set to deepen and strengthen going forward, there is an urgent need to look inwards, to carry out introspection to assess Africa’s capacity and level of engagement with China and to respond to the following questions.

How do we, as African citizens, view Africa’s relationship with China? What are our roles and responsibilities in this relationship? What are our expectations and our contributions? How do we ensure that we, the citizens of Africa, fully benefit from our continent’s relationship with China, and indeed from any current and future relationships? How do we stand to gain from the partnership with China, and the window of opportunity it has created?

These and other questions should be given due consideration by African citizens and their leaders, and could serve as a basis for shaping Africa’s partnership with China.

(3 September 2013)

 

To be continued…

 

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