Friends and Interests: China's Distinctive Links with Africa

By Sautman, Barry; Hairong, Yan | African Studies Review, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Friends and Interests: China's Distinctive Links with Africa


Sautman, Barry, Hairong, Yan, African Studies Review


Abstract:

China's expanded links to Africa have created a discourse of how to characterize those ties. Western political forces and media have criticized every aspect of China's activities in Africa, while Chinese, with significant support from Africans, have mounted a spirited defense. This article examines several factors that make China's links with Africa distinctive, including China's aid and migration policies, the distinctive "Chinese model" of foreign investment and infrastructure loans, and the development model known as the "Beijing Consensus." It argues that particular aspects of China's links with Africa make the People's Republic of China (PRC) seem a lesser evil than the West in terms of support for Africa's development and respect for African nations.

Between countries, there are no friends, only interests.

President Abodoulaye Wade of Senegal, paraphrasing Lord Palmerston, 2005

Introduction

A remarkable and telling exchange on Chinese policies in Africa occurred in 2006 between the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC). A CFR report on enhancing U.S. influence in Africa had devoted a chapter to China in which it charged that the PRC protects "rogue states" like Zimbabwe and Sudan, deploys its influence to counter Western pressures on African states to improve human rights and governance, and competes unfairly with U.S. firms in contract bids in Africa (Council on Foreign Relations 2006:49-52). These same points have been made by veteran critics of China in the U.S. Congress and by U.S. analysts who see China as a competitor (Smith 2005; Eisenman 8c Kurlantzick 2006). In response, China's foreign policy elites, which have long regarded the CFR as a "superpower brain-trust" and "invisible government" shaping the U.S. global role (Shambaugh 1993:195-97), responded by arguing that China has a "strategic partnership with Africa that features political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchange" (PRCMOFA 2006). The authors affirmed Africa's desire for a more democratic international order and detailed the aid activities of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which convened African and PRC ministers in Beijing in 2000, Addis Ababa in 2003, and Beijing again in 2006 (see UN 2003; Liu 2004). Although the PRC paper eschews the obligation of states to vindicate the rights of oppressed people, and furthermore suggests that China is likely to follow the West in its path of forging bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) in Africa that bypass WTO (World Trade Organization) regulations (see Draper 8c le Pere 2005; Cockayne 2005), it is firm in its claims that the West ignores African aspirations for a more equitable international distribution of wealth.2

While the PRC paper is somewhat defensive, the CFR report, like much Western discourse, actively misrepresents China's role in Africa. The stock notion that China practices neocolonialism in Africa and promotes corruption (Norberg 2006; Lyman 2005) is fostered by its portrayal of China as a country that is uniquely supportive of illiberal regimes, as well as its claims that Chinese activities, such as purchases of illegal African timber, are harmful to the environment. Elsewhere, China has been accused of conducting trade in Africa that is damaging to African antipoverty efforts (Widdershoven 2004), although it is rarely acknowledged that Western powers, as well as Taiwan, have long supported authoritarian regimes in Africa {Africa Confidential 2005; Kaplan 2005).3 PRC support for Zimbabwe and Sudan is much discussed in the West (Mawdsley 2007), but little is said about U.S. support for oil producers such as Gabon, Angola, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea (Peel 2003; Max 1997) or about its intelligence and other military cooperation with Sudan {Economist 2005; Hari 2005).4 During his tenure as Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, who tried his main opponent for rape and treason and changed the constitution in order to remain in office, was a much-praised U. …

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