By Mothusi Turner
I was recently invited by the Oxford Africa Society to speak at the Oxford Africa Conference on a panel titled “On Equal Footing: Changing Africa-China Relations”. I was honoured to speak alongside three formidable scholars: Professor Eric Thun, University Lecturer in Chinese Business at the Saïd Business School; Nikia Clarke, Director of the Oxford University China Africa Network; and Xiaoxue Weng, China Researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development. Our conversation touched on a number of topical issues regarding the Chinese presence in Africa. Many questions were asked but, as is inevitably the case when discussing China and Africa, we didn’t have time to explore them all in detail. So, in an attempt to extend the conversation a little further, I will be revisiting some of the questions asked during the panel session, starting with:
What are the biggest themes in Africa-China relations today?
Broadly speaking, from the Chinese perspective, there has been a shift away from the openly political ambitions of Zhou Enlai’s 1964 tour of Africa, towards an emphasis on more practical economic ambitions. Starting in 1978 with a period of greater pragmatism under Deng Xiaoping, the economic dimension of China’s relationship with Africa has grown in leaps and bounds. Trade between China and Africa surpassed $200 billion in 2012, up from just $10 billion in 2000, making China Africa’s biggest trading partner. The fact that Angola is China’s second largest supplier of oil after Saudi Arabia (Sudan is also among the top 10) illustrates the scope of China’s economic ambitions on the continent.
This does not mean that the political aspect of the relationship has been forgotten. Indeed, Beijing still imposes political conditions on its interactions with African countries, most notably requiring African partners to pledge support for the “One China” policy and seeking African support in the international organisations. Furthermore, China’s “stadium diplomacy” in Africa, particularly its donation of turnkey projects to what Western observers consider to be “odious regimes” can be interpreted as part of an effort to cement the legitimacy of the Communist regime through affiliation with other non-democratic governments.
Nonetheless, the political aspect of China’s engagement with Africa is all but eclipsed by China’s economic interest in Africa’s natural resources and consumer markets. Both have an important role to play in supporting China’s transition towards an urbanised and consumer-led economy. However, looking ahead, China’s slower pace of growth, from 10% in the last decade to 7% today, is sure to impact the nature and scale of the China-Africa economic relationship.
The slowdown in Chinese growth has already resulted in falling commodity prices, which have hit African commodity exporters. As China focuses more on growth through domestic consumption, we may also see a degree of decoupling between Chinese and African growth. Indeed, the emphasis on higher quality growth in China, and increased Chinese labour costs will mean that in future, Chinese manufacturing is more likely to focus on high-end, higher quality goods, rather than competing directly with Africa’s nascent manufacturing industries. The hopeful observer would speculate that the negative media coverage of certain Chinese investments in Africa and the accompanying backlash from Africans may also result in Chinese investors making more sustainable investments on the continent in future.
With these cautious caveats in mind, it’s worth remembering that China is still urbanising at an unprecedented rate. Between now and 2030, China’s urban population is expected to grow by 350 million – the equivalent of a city the size of Cardiff every week. This urbanisation, on a scale a 100 times that of Britain during the Industrial Revolution, will continue to fuel Chinese demand for African resources. However, compared to other economic partners – ASEAN for example – Africa still features very low down China’s priority list. In fact, as Yun Sun has argued, China fundamentally lacks an Africa strategy.
Sun’s paper on “Africa in China’s Foreign Policy” argues that Beijing’s relative neglect of Africa and its failure to produce a coordinated strategy for the continent have created space for numerous and various Chinese bodies and companies to pursue their own – often conflicting – ambitions on the continent.These disparate and uncoordinated activities arguably represent the biggest theme in China-Africa relations today.
As Sun points out, “there is a constant tension between the narrow, mercantilist pursuit of economic interests in Africa and that pursuit’s impact on the overall health of the Sino-African relationship and China’s international image. Bureaucratically, this partly contributes to the abrasive competition between MFA and MOFCOM for the leading role in China’s policy toward Africa. This conflict is most evident on the issue of China’s foreign aid to Africa”.
I would go further and argue that the state is no longer the principal vehicle through which China Africa relations are formed. The Chinese presence in Africa is mostly the result of uncoordinated actions undertaken by various parties: states, provincial governments, enterprises and individual migrants. Increasingly the relationship between China and Africa is being steered by daily interactions between Chinese and Africans on the ground rather than by state policies.
– Views expressed are entirely the author’s own unless stated otherwise –
COVER IMAGE: Chinese Engineers in Angola