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China Africa Relations: New Terms of Engagement

Gunjan Singh is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • September 09, 2010

    South African President Jacob Zuma went to China in August after he took office as the South African President. Among the issues discussed during his visit, he defended the investments made by China in the African continent and also appreciated the nature of the broad China Africa relationship - contrary to the western criticism of China’s role in Africa as being driven by its hunger for resources, without bothering about human rights. Other areas of discussion involved nuclear cooperation and Chinese investment in the South African railways. Zuma emphasized that the current Chinese investments in Africa are a continuation of the historical relations and thus should not be viewed only in the present context. He stated that the Chinese investments are aimed “… not to colonize, but to help Africa stand on its own and work together with China”. He further said that the feeling of equality, which Africa shares with China, is not possible with the western countries as the west perceives Africa as a “former colony” or “a former mother country”.

    In the past few years trade relations between both the countries have also improved and China became the largest trading partner for South Africa. The 2009 trade figures stand at US$ 16 bn. The primary argument by the South African leader was that African countries now have an option when they look for investments and do not have to give into western dictates. It is important to highlight here that Beijing has been continuously criticized by the western media for ignoring human rights violations by some of its partners in Africa, especially Sudan. In May 2009, Chinese companies entered into huge mining and cement manufacturing deals. China’s natural resource crunch is bound to increase as its economy grows further. It is also underscored by Beijing’s investment in development of agriculture in Africa which could become a source of food imports for China.

    Though trade is on an increase, there has been a tangibly negative side to this relationship. Domestic firms in Africa are loosing to the cheaper Chinese commodities being dumped in their markets. As a result there is an increase in the level of unemployment and a general discontent against the Chinese people. The investments by Chinese firms are primarily in the resource generation sector and as a result, there is no major addition to the overall employment generation. China is also criticized for bringing workers from China instead of helping locals. But on the other hand the investments have led to the construction of infrastructure which can boost other sectors of the local economies. In the agricultural sector also a part of the Chinese investment will move towards developing better techniques which may prove to be beneficial for the African continent which has been a victim of food shortages for a long time.

    Against this background, the statements made by Zuma clearly highlight that the investments made by China are necessary for these economies. The governments are aware of the local discontent against the Chinese but it is the Chinese who are ready to invest without many conditionalities. The western states have always had a policy of investing only if the country was following the terms set by them. In a situation where there is no hope of any investments coming without adjustments, Chinese companies have filled the vacuum to help the economies of African states. Beijing needs the resources back home and these countries require the investments to keep their economies afloat. South Africa also wants to join BRIC and Beijing appears to be the only support base for this.

    China Africa relations further highlight the fact that economic dependence leads to political deals. South Africa understands China’s needs for resources and its own utility in this respect, which the African continent seems to be using as a bargaining chip. Zuma also expressed his wish that South Africa should be represented in the BRIC as no other African country is a part of this group. He based his argument on the fact that if South Africa was represented, then the whole of African continent would be represented. China’s eagerness for assured supplies means that it might just pitch its support for Zuma’s demand for a seat in the BRIC. Personally for Zuma, it would further cement Zuma’s political credibility domestically.

    But the increasing presence of China on the African continent is a cause of worry for United States, India and Taiwan. For the US it means that China gets better deals on resources and is able to look the other way on the regimes’ political nature. It also forces AFRICOM to change its strategy. India has also been on the losing side as in spite of the fact that India has had historical ties and enjoys goodwill among the African people, China appears to be doing better despite being a late entrant. Last it is Taiwan which is loosing a battle of recognition. African countries form a major chunk of nations that have diplomatic ties with Taipei, but better and easier grants coming from Beijing may swing this in the favour of the latter.

    It is clear beyond doubt that China’s role in Africa is also changing the terms of engagement with the region as the countries in Africa have appreciated the Chinese methods of business and relations. That is perhaps the biggest challenge for India and the rest of the world in their future Africa strategy.