The Tale of a Country Courting a Continent – Part 2

Consider this:

Geographic area (million, km2) 30.5  9.6
Population (billion, 2010) 1.022 (est.) 1.316
Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (billion US$, 2012) 2,000 (est.) 8,250

  (billions US$)
Trade Volume  between Africa and China (2012) 200
China’s Investment Level in Africa (as at June 2012) 45
China’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to Africa (2011) 4.5

(From various sources)

The selected data gives us an overview of the context in which the Africa-China relations are set, and helps us understand the rationale underlying the partnership between Africa and China.

On the one hand, Africa – a massive continent second only to Asia in terms of geographic area – is home to 54 officially independent countries. Recent estimates put the overall population of the continent to 1 billion inhabitants, of which 70% are below 30 years of age, making it the youngest continent in the world.

A prominent feature of Africa is its tremendous wealth in natural resources (energy and mineral) and huge tract of land that remain largely untapped. Despite the considerable potential of its human and natural resources, the continent has time and again failed to reap the benefits.

Africa’s resources are considered by some as a “curse” that has brought – and continues to bring – untold tribulations and sufferings to its citizens. Africa, as a continent, therefore fares poorly in terms of the major development indicators when compared to the rest of the world.

On the other hand, China, the most populated country on earth, became the remarkable success story of our times, owing to its impressive socio-economic achievements. The country, which shared similar low base of development with Africa just half a century ago, was able to radically transform its economy and the lives of its citizens over the span of less than 3 decades. To do so, it charted and followed its own path to realize its national goals and vision.

Now, with its unrivalled economic might and its rise to the rank of superpower, China is set to become the leader the new world order.

How then does Africa measure up to China?

If we take the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a comparator, the combined GDP of the African continent – more than three times the geographic size of China – represents a fraction, less than a quarter of that of China!

In all fairness, how can Africa, an economic lightweight, ever be a match to China, the next world leader?

In truth, far from being a partnership among equals, it is the confluence of interests of strategic importance that brought Africa and China together. Simply put, Africa holds the key to the 21st century energy sources, and China needs Africa’s resources to fuel its energy-hungry economy and sustain its growth trajectory.

These vital interests, from China’s perspective, form the pillars of the Africa-China relations, which are predominantly – but not solely – economic and commercial ties at their core.

As a result, trade relations between Africa and China flourished, with China overtaking the USA to become the continent’s largest trading partner since 2009. Over the last decade, the volume of trade between the two grew exponentially, soaring to US$ 200 billion in 2012 from a mere US$ 10 billion in 2000. Close to 80% of Africa’s exports to China are resource-based commodities, namely oil, gas and mineral products.

Concurrently, China invested massively in Africa with the aim of consolidating its presence in Africa, and most importantly, laying the groundwork for a long-term partnership that will guarantee the sustainability of its economic interests on the continent.

Its cumulative investment on the continent rose to US$ 45 billion in 2012, geared primarily towards the resources sector, followed by the construction sector, and rapidly expanding to other sectors of the African economies, namely services (banks), manufacturing, and agriculture.

Recent trends seem to suggest a steady rise in the flow of Chinese Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to Africa, which reached US$ 4.5 billion in 2011 and helped finance the establishment of 2,000 registered Chinese-owned Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) across Africa.

The windfalls of the Africa-China relations generated an overall positive impact on African economies.

The biggest winners are obviously the continent’s resource-rich countries, especially the oil-producing economies. Nonetheless, a large number of African countries are registering some of the strongest and sustained growth rates, and this trend is projected to continue unabated.

Many credit China for Africa’s rise from the ashes – a region which was for so long viewed by the West as a “hopeless”, “forgotten”, “lost”, “dark” continent – and the statement holds true, especially considering that China’s engagement in Africa has sparked increasing interests from across the world, emerging and western countries alike, to partner with the continent.

In addition, China has provided Africa with the substantial investment and financial assistance it desperately needed to finance its development. Africa is now emerging as the “Next Frontier”, a serious player to contend with, a region with a promising outlook, and a prime investment destination.

Interesting to see how the tables turned when China started courting Africa! Now the world is rushing to Africa’s doorsteps for a piece of the continent’s pie!

Africa’s alliance to China has certainly changed the landscape of international partnership on the continent. Previous partnership arrangements were made for the most part between Africa and the West, which related with the continent in a fragmented way along special spheres of influence based on colonial past, geopolitical importance, or other special affinities.

By partnering with an entire continent, China’s new approach breaks away from the past, opening up a whole new chapter in international partnership.

China has written its own rules of engagement with Africa that other emerging countries, and recently Western countries, are keen on following suit in their relations with Africa. It has become nowadays common for us to hear about India-Africa, Brazil-Africa, Turkey-Africa, Japan-Africa, South Korea-Africa, and even Vietnam-Africa partnerships and fora.

It is clear that China is intent on securing its sources of energy and other natural resources in Africa, as it is essential to its quest of becoming the world’s superpower. It is no surprise that China came to Africa with its own agenda aligned to its development objectives and a well-thought out strategy to guide its relations with the continent. China’s Africa policy thus provides the framework for its engagement on the continent, which goes beyond the economic sphere to encompass various dimensions.

One thing is for sure: China is in Africa for the long haul. Instead of engaging in futile debates about China’s engagement in Africa, it’s time for Africa to come to grips with the “fait accompli” and to initiate serious reflections on how it plans to relate to China to ensure a balanced and beneficial partnership from the African perspective.

I believe that China’s arrival in Africa has offered the continent a rare and unparalleled opportunity to take a step back and rethink its partnership arrangements with China, and indeed with the rest of the world. Africa has now a formidable chance to start afresh, shape and influence its relations in a way that best serves its citizens’ interests.

Even so, the continent has to make sure that it does not simply mirror China’s Africa policy. It has to take stock of its past and current relationships, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and learn from failed relations to devise its own strategy, which adequately articulates the continent’s development priorities and vision as well as its citizens’ needs and aspirations for a multi-dimensional partnership with China.

Developing and adopting a common African China policy is crucial to strengthen the continent’s position at the negotiating table. It will also set the example for all the other – existing and new – partnership arrangements for which Africa should develop similar frameworks and policies.

Only then can Africa be ready to be courted by potential suitors! Only then can Africa throw its doors wide open for business!

Africa’s China policy should not only seek to address bigger issues such as leveraging the continent’s assets to achieve its development objectives, redefining its new geopolitical position and role, ensuring greater benefits of its partnerships and development gains to its citizens, and curbing illegal practices, particularly illegal mining and animal poaching.

Equally as important are the implications of the Africa-China relations on the African citizens. The positive changes observed at a higher level – the macroeconomic level – have yet to trickle down and translate into tangible improvements in the lives of the majority of African citizens’.

Many in Africa would instead point out to lost opportunities, with the closing down of scores of businesses and industries unable to withstand China’s competition; the lack of opportunities, with the sheer number of Chinese migrant labor coming to Africa and Chinese companies sprouting up across the continent; the poor quality of Chinese goods that have inundated African markets; the lack of compliance to African countries’ regulations and standards by Chinese companies and nationals, leading to misunderstandings, frictions, and even at times, violence; the inadequate quality of work delivered by Chinese contractors, as well as the language and culture barriers.

These are some of the emerging issues (to be discussed in forthcoming blog posts) that are negatively impacting African citizens’ lives.

Bringing to the fore the issues that matter to African citizens and working towards addressing them will go a long way to building a healthy, balanced and mutually beneficial relationship between Africa and China going forward.

However, ignoring or dismissing the concerns voiced by African citizens will benefit no one and will only cast a shadow on an otherwise promising partnership. These issues may offer some insights on the reasons why the blossoming relationship between Africa and China at the top official level has so far failed to deliver at the level of the average African citizen.

China seems to be open for dialogue, at least according to the assurances given by Chinese top officials in response to concerns put forward by African governments. Hence, it is Africa’s responsibility to make sure that African citizens’ concerns are heard.  These concerns can, in fact, serve as a basis to formulate and enrich Africa’s China policy.

Developing such a policy is no easy task. It requires a strong will and collective effort, with an active participation of each and every one of us, African citizens, from the leadership down to the last citizen.

The time is now to do it right. The question is: are we ready to seize the opportunity and write our own rules of engagement with China? When can we look forward to the implementation of Africa’s China policy?

(22 October 2013)


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One comment

  1. You have some very profound thoughts, and I agree with most of your conclusions. But on Africa developing a China policy, I think this will mostly happen bilaterally rather than at any scale. In any case I dont think that Africa-China will be the solution to Africa’s development challenge. It will however increasingly become a huge consideration in global geopolitics. What will determine Africa’s structural transformation and development are: 1) a reconstitution of the African state away from the current crony capitalist state to a developmental state; 2) Radical reforms of the way/s African economies are articulated into the global economy (i.e. value addition -e.g. most of the current growth of African economies is based on favorable commodities prices driven by high demand from china and India); 3) Radical internal reforms such as land reform (we same to be going in the opposite direction, with land reforms actually displacing the African peasantry and replacing it with international capital); 4) New tax regimes to support the emergence of local enterprises; 5) revision of the onerous debt burden and 6) a new education paradigm. None of these is dependent on China-Africa, but because of the political implications, China – Africa might make it possible to pull off radical reforms by constituting a counterweight to the powers that rule this world.


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