This weekend, China and Africa will mark another major milestone in their relationship. The most significant aspect of the event may not be the fact of its happening, but the fact that serious diplomatic exchanges between China and African countries are now regular, even commonplace.
Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt
On Sunday, African and Chinese leaders will meet in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, for a summit on trade. VOA notes that
despite the global financial crisis and lowered expectations, the relationship is going strong.
China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Zhai Jun says the theme of the conference will be a new type of strategic partnership, and cover such disparate topics as energy security and climate change.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has already arrived in Egypt, and will meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak before the summit.
As I said above, exchanges like this are nothing new. This summit is the sequel to one held in Beijing in 2006 which was attended by some forty African heads of state. Chinese President Hu Jintao paid visits to Africa in 2003, 2006, 2007, and 2009.
Persistent Chinese diplomacy has assisted in the expansion of Chinese economic and political influence in West Africa and other parts of the continent. The numbers are staggering: “direct Chinese investment in Africa soared from 491 million dollars in 2003 to 7.8 billion dollars in 2008,” while “trade between the two has increased tenfold since the start of the decade.”
Of course, the Chinese presence in Africa has occasioned serious concern in the US and elsewhere, where “critics have accused China of worsening repression and human rights abuses in Africa by supporting countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe in its drive to gain access to vital natural resources.” Similar charges appeared after the conclusion of a trade deal between China and the regime in Guinea; ongoing Chinese investment despite the government crackdown in Guinea, for some, reflected “established Chinese business practices in Africa, characterized by huge investments in a still-poor continent but also secrecy and often scant regard for labor and human rights.”
My own view is that for the moment a pragmatic focus on economic interests motivates China – a “thirst for African oil” and minerals – but that already, and increasingly, China will have to make sophisticated political maneuvers in Africa. For example, it’s not an accident that “malaria diplomacy” figures in Chinese outreach to Africa. Chinese elites may describe the project in instrumentalist terms, saying that “helping developing countries eradicate malaria will help China project its influence and prestige as a global power,” but the fact is they’ve already felt compelled to bolster economic wheeling and dealing with humanitarian undertakings. No superpower, or would-be superpower, can avoid politics altogether. That doesn’t necessarily mean China will eventually have to pay more attention to human rights, but it does suggest that it won’t always be possible to get in and make money without taking local realities into account.
So the summit may not represent a dramatic shift in the relationship, but it provides a moment to reflect on where the relationship is going. British analyst Tom Carghill has a perspective worth considering:
“Over all, I think it has been a largely balanced relationship,” Carghill said. “African governments that have negotiated strong, good deals with China, including Angola, have done well out of it. But also China has gotten access to the markets and the commodities that it needs.”
“I also think that we have to be realistic,” Carghill said. “China, ultimately, is still a third-world country in many respects, and its companies and its business people come from that background, and it would be strange if they applied a higher standard in the African states in the way they do business than they do back home in China.”
Carghill adds that, since the last conference in Beijing, both sides have become, inevitably, more realistic about how the relationship will work in the future.
Carghill’s is not the only perspective that merits reflection, though. Politics, after all, involves more than one side. So if you’re interested in political backlash against China in Africa, head on over to the New Pragmatist and check out a video and some links he has on the situation.