Chinese President Hu Jintao wrapped up his eight-country, twelve-day African tour this month in the midst of controversy regarding China’s role in the continent. Government officials from the countries that received China’s leader expressed gratitude for their guest’s generous offers of aid, cancellations of debt and promises of trade and investment. Critics, however, charge that China’s actions in Africa are no less than neocolonialism, as it seizes a new sphere of influence, grabs oil and other resources, props up repressive regimes and leaves individual African countries on the losing end. Beijing has refuted such characterizations by identifying itself with the developing world, stressing the reciprocal nature of its interactions with Africa and promising a new paradigm of China-Africa partnership based on the traditional friendship.
Beijing’s Unprecedented Focus on Africa
The international attention on China’s relations with Africa is in part a result of the Chinese leadership’s decision to make the resource-rich continent one of its foreign policy priorities in recent years. Hu’s latest trip to Africa is his second within a span of one year, the third as China’s President and the fifth since he became a member of the Politburo in the early 1990s. In the summer of 2006, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao toured seven African countries. Since 2004, six senior Chinese leaders from the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party have visited Africa, covering most of the countries on the continent . The Chinese foreign minister’s decision to select an African country as his first foreign trip of each year since 1991 indicates the extensive focus that Chinese leaders have placed upon Africa and, in doing so, reveals the importance that Beijing has attached to that part of the world.
The watershed event in Sino-African relations was the elaborate Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit held in Beijing last November. As a part of the 2006 “China’s Year of Africa” and in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of China’s diplomatic relationship with Africa, 48 out of the 53 African countries sent their leaders to Beijing for a gathering that no other country in the world has yet been able to assemble. Beijing’s streets and subways were filled with celebratory signs; President Hu, standing at the Great Hall of the People, received all 48 African leaders, most of them presidents or prime ministers and over the course of the following days, promised a long list of future initiatives of cooperation bundled with generous financial incentives:
- A “new type of China-Africa strategic partnership,” characterized by “political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchanges,” was announced as an overall framework in bilateral relations.
- Additional high-level bilateral visits in order to maintain the positive momentum of Sino-African relations were proposed. The foreign ministers of China and the African countries “will hold political consultations in New York on the sideline of the UN General Assembly to exchange views on major issues of common interest.”
- China and Africa will work to more than double the current trade volumes by 2010, reaching $100 billion in bilateral trade.
- China will encourage investment in Africa by setting up a China-Africa development fund amounting to $5 billion and establishing special economic zones in Africa.
- Beijing will provide African countries with $3 billion in preferential loans in the next three years, while also canceling $1 billion of debt from African countries.
- Trade deals signed between Chinese and African corporations during the summit totaled $1.9 billion.
- In addition to providing a $37.5 million grant for anti-malarial drugs in the next three years, Beijing will assist African countries in building 30 hospitals and 30 demonstration centers for the prevention and treatment of malaria
- China will build 100 rural schools in Africa over the next three years and double the number of current scholarships given to African students to study in China from 2,000 to 4,000 by 2009 .
The Three Notables: Sudan, Zambia and South Africa
President Hu’s much publicized African trip is clearly a strategic step and a committed follow-up to the FOCAC summit. To carry out Beijing’s promise of enhanced cooperation, Hu delivered offers and initiatives at every stop of his eight-country tour. Three particular countries on Hu’s itinerary, however, generated more headlines than the others: Sudan, Zambia and South Africa. Each country represents a specific challenge that Beijing faces in its African diplomacy.
Of the three countries, China has the most significant energy interests in Sudan, and its oil companies have been operating in the country since the departure of the Western oil majors in the mid-1990s. The state-owned China National Petroleum Cooperation has the largest overseas production in Sudan, and other Chinese firms have also invested heavily in refineries, pipelines and other infrastructure projects. Bilateral trade reached $2.9 billion in the first eleven months of 2006. China is Sudan’s largest trading partner, while Sudan is China’s third-largest trading partner in Africa (Reuters, January 24). In recent years, Beijing has been facing increased international criticism for its unwillingness to use its significant economic leverage to persuade the Sudanese government to cease its sponsorship of atrocities in the Darfur region. In what seemed to be a response to the criticism and possibly a departure from China’s traditional policy of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs, Hu presented a four-point proposal on seeking a resolution on Darfur during his meeting with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir. The most important point was Hu’s support of a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur (People’s Daily, February 3). While it is too early to conclude from such a mild case of “interference” that there are any major changes in China’s foreign policy tenets, Hu’s Sudan encounter certainly reflects Beijing’s desire to stabilize Sudan and to be perceived as a responsible power by the international community.
In Zambia, the rapid influx of Chinese businessmen and investment in the country’s rich copper and other commodity sectors has resulted in accusations that many of the Chinese owners have exploited the local workers. Not long ago, the opposition leader in Zambia’s election ran on an anti-China platform, and though he lost the election, accusations of low wages and other mistreatment in Chinese-owned mines linger. Hu’s stop in Zambia was marked by efforts from both sides to defuse criticisms, with Beijing offering Zambia $800 million in special loans and canceling $350 million in debts that Zambia owed to China. The two governments also announced the establishment of a special economic zone (Xingdao Huanqiu, February 4). While Hu emphatically rejected the view that China is simply replacing the old colonial powers, interested in extracting Africa’s resources for its own economic benefits, China’s own record of labor protection during the past three decades is a troubling one; extraordinary efforts will be required if fair labor laws are to be strictly enforced abroad.
China’s presence in South Africa is likewise being questioned, though the debate has been centered upon the extent to which bilateral economic ties between the two countries are competitive or complementary. South Africa is China’s largest trading partner on the continent, with bilateral trade totaling $6.3 billion in 2005, up 42.4 percent year-on-year (China Daily, January 30). As the most advanced economy in Africa, South Africa's domestic economy has received serious challenges from the arrival of Chinese products. There are significant concerns that Chinese imports are resulting in the loss of manufacturing jobs in South Africa. Facing concerns that South Africa may end up in a neocolonial relationship, exporting resources to China and receiving more expensive valued-added manufacturing goods in return—a familiar pattern that characterizes Africa’s past colonial trade relations with Europe—Hu pledged to address the issue of trade imbalances between China and Africa, which are heavily in China’s favor.
Africa a Zero-Sum Game?
Regarding the prospects of further China-Africa cooperation, the issues raised during Hu’s latest trip to Africa will almost certainly resurface again. Zhongnanhai’s economic interests in the continent as well as its global aspirations guarantee that China will not be disengaging from Africa in the near future. In fact, China’s policymakers and academics will pay even closer attention to these contentious problems, and Beijing is likely to continue to adjust its policies toward Africa in order to both advance its relations with the continent and to fend off international criticism.
Such resolve may only be reinforced, rather than weakened, by the recent decision of the U.S. military to create an Africa Command (USAFRICOM). The fact that the announcement coincided with President Hu’s tour of Africa may lead China to believe that the United States intends to compete with it for both geopolitical influence and resources on the continent. Yet, such a move is likely to reinforce Beijing’s awareness of the current limitations of its global reach, and could strengthen the voices inside China’s military and policymaking circles that call for the development of even greater power projection capabilities.
The irony is that both China and the United States have similar interests in gaining access to Africa’s vast energy and raw material resources, and both require a stable environment on the continent in order for them to achieve their objectives. The two major powers could also work together to tackle many of the development problems facing African countries. It is therefore in Beijing’s interests to forge a truly “win-win” situation in its relations with Africa, while exploring a cooperative framework with the United States and the EU countries to ensure that the major powers do not engage in hostile policies that harm both the African people as well as their own interests.
1. Data assembled by the author through the special report on Hu Jintao’s Africa trip at http://politics.people.com.cn/GB/1024/5388818.html.2. “Action Plan Adopted at China-Africa Summit, Mapping Cooperation Course, available online at http://english.focacsummit.org/2006-11/05/content_5167.htm. See also, http://www.focacsummit.org/zxbd/2006-11/05/content_5186.htm.