China in Africa: The Rise of Hegemony?

Article excerpt

"China is both a tantalising opportunity and a terrifying threat"--Moeletsi Mbeki (1))

ABSTRACT

This article explores China's international role with reference to Africa in order to answer the question whether China can, in fact, be considered an emerging hegemon that is using, as Western states have done in the past, Africa in order to promote its own position. The concept hegemon/hegemony is discussed briefly in order to provide a framework for analysis. China's relations with Africa are considered, focusing on economic, political and security issues (though the distinction between political and security issues is sometimes vague). These relations are then evaluated with reference to the nature and role of a hegemon. It is concluded that there is not sufficient evidence for perceiving China's role in Africa as that of an emerging hegemon.

1. INTRODUCTION

The spectacular rise of China as (what is often claimed to be) a superpower in the contemporary international system is regularly the subject of much debate and attention, especially in the press and popular journals. The International Relations community, though, seems to find it rather difficult to characterise the role of China in international affairs. International Relations theories about the international power structure have traditionally dealt with Western powers, including Japan as a kind of 'honorary' Western economic power, but with apparently little provision for the emergence of a superpower from the Global South. (2)) Scholarly contributions on China's rise as an 'incipient superpower' (3)) tend to focus on its economic 'giantism', its modernising security establishment, its energy policies and needs and, to some extent, its impact on the global natural environment in an age of climate change and environmental degradation. (4)) When it comes to China's relations with Africa, international views, especially in the United States (US), whether scholarly or journalistic, seem to regard China as a 'bad influence', potentially undermining "years of international efforts to link aid to better governance" (5)) and as propping up "dangerous regimes, producing a new cycle of unsustainable debt, and damaging anti-poverty efforts across the region". (6))

Mearsheimer recently analysed China's rise, and its concomitant impact on the international system, on the basis of hegemony. He defined the country's rise as 'unpeaceful', due to the potential for "intense security competition" with the US that might result in "considerable potential for war". (7)) Alden also uses the concept 'hegemony' when dealing with China (in this case China's engagement with Africa), pointing out that China has an "overriding concern with American hegemony" and presents its own emergence as (at the very least) a great power as a 'peaceful rise'. (8)) Both scholars use the term 'hegemony', yet the one views China's rise as 'unpeaceful' (Mearsheimer) and the other (Alden) as peaceful. Apart from Mearsheimer and Alden's work, though, and despite the bulk of publications over the past decade charting China's rise and more specifically its role in and policy towards Africa, little effort has been expended in the International Relations scholarly community to explain China's role in the international system. Although some scholars use the concept 'hegemon' when referring to China's rise, hegemonic stability theory, as Evans and Newnham point out, is exclusively concerned with "relations within the advanced industrial countries" and not with the North-South divide. (9)) Nor does it make provision for the rise of a Global South power to hegemonic status, despite China's greater power status which it has enjoyed at least since the early 1970s when it became a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council.

This article explores China's international role with reference to Africa in order to answer the question whether China can, in fact, be considered an emerging hegemon that is using, as Western states have done in the past, Africa in order to promote its own position. …