An Opportunistic Ally: China's Increasing Involvement in Africa

By Shinn, David H. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

An Opportunistic Ally: China's Increasing Involvement in Africa

Shinn, David H., Harvard International Review

Chinese officials, think tank researchers, and representatives of state-owned companies frequently refer to a "win-win" outcome when discussing Chinese-African relations. Most of my interlocutors during visits to Beijing and Shanghai this year sincerely seemed to believe that China and Africa have had, and will continue to have, a mutually beneficial relationship. China and Africa have been trading partners for many centuries. The Chinese Communist Party formed close ties with African liberation movements in the late 1950s. However, its engagements with the continent over the past 10 years have greatly exceeded earlier contact. As the quantity and intensity of these relationships have increased, China has been subjected to the realities of dealing with Africa and has come under criticism for some of its government policies and business practices. So far, China has shown an unusual ability to react constructively and mitigate problems caused by its policies. Indeed, if China continues its deft foreign policy in Africa, popular discontent among Africans will likely remain manageable.


China's Strategy in Africa

In general China has sought to portray itself as the world's largest and most powerful developing country, while it describes Africa as the continent with the largest number of developing countries. It considers Chinese and African economies as highly complementary with strong prospects for cooperation. China's January 2006 African Policy statement proposed a decades-long comprehensive agenda that has been well received by African leaders. This statement emphasized non-interference in internal affairs, equality, mutual benefit and support, and, most critical to Beijing, an acceptance of the one-China principle.

This principle assigned a premium to high-level exchanges in all spheres of activity. It called for a new international political and economic order that would safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries. China promised to facilitate the entrance of African products into the Chinese market, increase investment in Africa, and intensify agricultural cooperation. It began to encourage Chinese enterprises in order to help build infrastructure in African countries, something the West has been reluctant to do in recent years. And it promised to help Africa raise the level of tourism, reduce its debt, and increase economic assistance. The policy statement called for comprehensive cooperation in the fields of education, science and technology, culture, medicine and health, media, the environment, and disaster relief. It offered training assistance to African military personnel as well as support to internal defense building and African peacekeeping operations. Finally, the statement noted that China would promote cooperation with African judicial, law enforcement, and immigration departments while addressing non-traditional security threats such as terrorism.

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), launched in 2000, is the vehicle through which China manages this relationship. The Third Ministerial Conference of FOCAC took place in Beijing in November 2006. All 48 African countries that have diplomatic relations with China sent senior delegations, most of them led by their respective heads of state. Only five countries--the Gambia, Malawi, Swaziland, Burkina Faso, and Sao Tome and Principe, all of which have formal relations with Taiwan--did not participate.

The Beijing Action Plan resulting from the last FOCAC conference was ambitious in both its depth and breadth. Specific decisions included a Chinese pledge to increase from 190 to 440 the number of items from Africa's least developed countries that are permitted to enter China duty-free. China said it would establish a China-Africa Development Fund capitalized at US$5 billion to support investments in Africa by Chinese companies. It also promised to double the value of its 2006 development assistance program by 2009 and cancel some states' government interest-free loans that were due at the end of 2000. …

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