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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 34

China in Africa

Sunday 10 August 2008, by Purnima Roy


China has been making vigorous efforts to establish a firm foothold in Africa since the beginning of the new century. Prior to the 1990s China had a common policy towards Africa, mainly based on ideology. China was also involved in building railways in countries like Zambia and Tanzania.

The initial interest in China was ideology based. However, this was till the 1990s; thereafter there was no common policy for China. In the latter half of the 1990s the Chinese policy was based on energy requirement and image building in Africa for the bourgeoning economy of China. This change has been viewed with serious concern particularly in the West.

China’s policy towards Africa can be classified into broadly two categories:

1. Developmental—that can also be brought into the rubric of Third World solidarity. It can be seen as a long-term commitment to Africa’s development.

2. Imperialistic—China’s interest in energy and African market has been viewed with skepticism. These two broad classifications can be seen as both policy convergence and policy friction.

However, Chinese interest in Africa has emanated from a number of factors. The declining interest of the US and Europe in Africa following the financial crisis in sub-Saharan Africa and AIDS has created a power vacuum, which is filled by China. The inability of the African countries to pay back loans also became responsible for the declining Western interest in Sub-Saharan Africa. Consequently, China got a freer hand in shaping her relations with the African nations.

The international isolation of Africa made the Chinese entry easier. Though Chinese foreign policy in Africa was strongly grounded on energy requirement, particularly in countries like Nigeria, Angola and Sudan, one-third of China’s oil requirement was coming from Africa. Sudan played a major role here. The Chinese stand on Darfur has further helped China to develop better relations with Sudan. (The West saw it as a major lapse on the part of Chinese Government because of human rights abrogation by the Sudanese Government.) Differing with the West, China considers it a domestic problem of Sudan and, as a consequence, Chinese companies became the largest investors in Sudan. A consciously developed a non-intervention policy in Africa makes China popular. The Chinese Government went to the extent of stating that the UN peacekeeping force would be allowed in Sudan only if the Sudanese Government asked for it. Also the Chinese Government’s policy of writing off debts, especially in Angola, has turned out to be another lubricating factor in China’s entry into Africa. The Chinese involvement in Zambian copper has helped in electronic industries and employment building. China’s good relation with Nelson Mandela made the tasks easier. With Nigeria the bilateral trade has benefited both sides—while Nigeria gives China crude oil, 95 per cent of motorbikes on the Nigerian road are Chinese.

By the 1990s the African countries’ record of paying off Brettonwood loans was also proven to be bad. It was here that China’s help came in, especially in Angola, where the Chinese Government wrote off a 100 million dollar loan. Gestures like building palaces for the Libyan President or arms assistance did antagonise the West but they won over African hearts. In order to secure the oil route, China improved upon her relations with Seychelles.

Unlike China, the West does not have a common policy towards Africa. China is having business relations with 49 countries, which ranges from fisheries, agricultural sector, communications, etc. In November 2006, China decided to double the assistance to Africa by creating an African Development Fund, and to cancel debts owed by indebted countries. China also opened a market for 448 export items and created economic zones in Africa by increasing cooperation in trade, human resource, agriculture and health. Though the West sees this as Chinese imperialism, it is also aware that the Chinese interest in Africa is not new. China’s claim to be a Third World nation brings it closer to the hearts of the African people. This may be of serious concern for the West. India may draw inspiration from increasing Chinese business in Africa but the fact remains that these business relations are based on deeper mutual trust which China has been able to build on.

China’s ability to make a dent into the lower segment market has been proved mutually beneficial for both the African nations and China.

China does not have a common policy for the entire Africa. It has changed depending on her own interest. It has ranged from the energy import policy to the development assistance programme.

China has come a long way as far as its policy towards Africa is concerned. From ideology to development to energy, what helps China to stand out vis-à-vis other nations in its policy towards Africa is its consistency. In a way slow and steady has actually won the race. India may draw lessons from this.

The West may be skeptical of Chinese intentions in Africa but finally it is the African people who should decide who they want to trade with.

The author teaches Political Process in Africa in Miranda House, University of Delhi.

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