China's emergence as a key player in Africa, the impact of its presence and its challenges to traditional Western pre-eminence in African economies are one of the hallmarks of the 21st century. Two-way trade, which stood at less than $1 billion in 2000, has surged to nearly $40 billion in 2006, while in the same period China's share of Africa's trade has jumped from 2.6 percent to over 6 percent, making it the continent's third largest trading partner after the United States and France. Africa has featured high on the Chinese diplomatic circuit, benefiting from no less than three major tours in the last year by Chinese leaders as well as a heads of state summit in Beijing this November. And, while a decade ago China only had a limited presence in Africa, today there are hundreds of major Chinese businesses, bolstered by tens of thousands of Chinese laborers, retailers and tourists. African businesses are also linking up with Chinese partners and, together, are exploring investment opportunities both in Africa and China itself.
China's engagement with Africa
China's contemporary engagement with Africa is not "new" but in fact has its roots in policies pursued since the mid-1950s as well as earlier historical precedents. Africa in the Cold War era was seen primarily by Chinese leaders as a terrain for ideological competition with the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as the remaining European influences. This took the form of Chinese diplomatic and military support in southern Africa for liberation movements and the construction of the TanZam Railway. Moreover, Chinese officials recognized that, with their numerical advantage in the [UN] General Assembly and anti-colonial perspective, independent African states held the key to removing the Taiwan [regime] from its official status as occupant of the coveted permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
The onset of the contemporary phase in China-Africa relations began in the wake of Deng Xiaoping's domestic economic successes and the growing confidence that is instilled in the country. His successor, Jiang Zemin, toured Africa in May 1996, at which time he presented the "Five-point Proposal" that established the terms of a new relationship with Africa, centering on [the principles of] a reliable friendship, sovereign equality and non-intervention, mutually beneficial development and international cooperation. The accompanying dynamics of Chinese re-engagement with Africa that followed can be seen in three dimensions: an economic rationale, a diplomatic rationale and a broader set of concerns linked to China's interests.
African resources and new markets. Energy resources remain the most important focus of China's involvement on the continent but it must be recognized that other natural resources play a critical role as well. With regard to oil, China's overall "outward movement" strategy of engaging developing countries and locking in resources through government-to-government agreements, launched in earnest after 1993, has brought about a recognition in Beijing of the dangers of political instability from Middle Eastern sources. Currently, less than 30 percent of all of China's oil requirements are sourced from Africa and that is set to expand further with the recent purchase of stakes in West Africa.
At the same time, competition for other natural resources, including strategic minerals, timber and fisheries, as well as the opening of new markets for its products, are playing a part in diversifying the content of Chinese involvement in Africa. The commodities boom has been driven by China's need for material such as nickel, copper, gold and titanium. West African timber in particular continues to attract Chinese investment (60 percent of Africa's tropical timber exports are to China), while Chinese companies have moved quickly to become leaders in the area of physical infrastructure development (roads, railroads and major public buildings) as well as telecommunications development on the continent.
Though Africa represents a small market for consumer goods itself, nonetheless trade with China has had a significant impact in two ways. In the first instance, China has been able to find a market for its low-value consumer goods that are brought in by Chinese-dominated import companies and sold through a growing informal network of trading posts across urban and rural Africa. Another dimension of Chinese interests is its new investment in industries that are geared to markets based in the United States and Europe.
Development assistance and diplomacy. Development assistance, though still relatively limited in nature to date, occupies an increasingly important part of China's relations with Africa. Africa receives the largest percentage of China's development assistance (44 percent, or $1.8 billion), with Official Development Assistance divided between tied aid, outright grants to recipients, a limited number of loans and new mechanisms such as government guarantees for sectoral investment in the region. According to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Chinese aid in 2005 alone amounted to $44.4 million. This assistance includes funding of the civil service in the Central African Republic and Liberia, and providing a substantial loan to an Angolan Government reluctant to turn to the International Monetary Fund. Training programs in technical areas such as hydro-irrigation and small-scale agricultural production involving thousands of African farmers have served to transfer China's experience to Africa. In addition, China has provided Algeria with a nuclear reactor and modern telecommunications equipment in Ethiopia and Djibouti, as well as accompanying training programs to maintain this equipment.
The announcement of debt forgiveness to 31 African countries, amounting to $1.27 billion, at the second China-Africa Cooperation Forum in 2003 and aid donations to a number of states, are a further expression of this symbolic drive. This was supplemented by a decision to exempt duties on 190 export items from Africa's poorest countries.
Finally, in the area of humanitarianism, China has broken its own past precedents and sent 600 peacekeepers into Liberia, representing recognition of the importance of participating in UN-sanctioned operations that promote stability. It has also provided financial support to combat drought on the Horn of Africa amounting to $200,000 in 1999 and $610,000 in humanitarian assistance in 2004 to address the Darfur crisis. In a dramatic step aimed at countering critics of its role in Sudan, the Chinese Government announced in 2006 that it would be providing $3.5 million in support of African Union peacekeeping operations in that strife-torn region.
Forging strategic partnerships. A key dimension of Chinese foreign policy at the global level is an overriding concern with Western hegemony. This concern has manifested itself in a search for strategic partners with whom Beijing can make common cause around issues that reflect their shared interests. These interests center on mutual respect for state sovereignty as a guiding principle of the international system and the non-intervention in domestic affairs of states. As significant players in multilateral organizations, African states have demonstrated a long-standing commitment to international institutions and the ideas of multilateralism. In the words of Premier Wen Jiabao in Addis Ababa last December, "China is ready to coordinate its positions with African countries in the process of international economic rules formulation and multilateral trade negotiations."
Forging future partnerships
Africa has responded with enthusiasm to the return of the Chinese to a position of prominence in continental affairs. Underlying the positive attitude adopted by African governments and society is the recognition that China provides new sources of foreign direct investment (FDI) and development assistance, actively supports existing regimes irrespective of their political orientation, and can serve as an important strategic partner that can counter Western influence on the international stage. For those Africans concerned about aspects of Chinese engagement, however, there are worries about job losses due to competition with Chinese industry. Some concerns at the use of Chinese labor for large infrastructure projects and, in some selected instances, poor labor practices by a few Chinese businesses.
In tourism, the rise of a Chinese middle class with spending power and interest in leisure travel has broadened the pool of tourists in an area of great importance to many African economies. For instance, South Africa has benefited from this official status, with the number of Chinese tourists more than tripling in June 2003 alone from 962 to 3,423.
Linked to the positive response to growing Chinese economic involvement has been the effect that Beijing's Africa policy has had for African governments. Chinese engagement has provided a new source of regime stability in Africa. Governments in Sudan and Zimbabwe, which have been subjected to a variety of international sanctions over their human rights policies over a period of years, have benefited from China's explicit "no conditionalities" policy toward the continent. At the same time, while much of the attention has been on China's willingness to provide diplomatic succor to international--or perhaps more to the point, Western designated--pariah regimes, the fact of the matter is that this unprecedented level of attention is having an impact on all African governments. The spectacle of the leaders of one of the world's powers regularly visiting the continent and meeting with African leaders makes a strong impression on African governments and the public at large.
The Third Forum on Sino-African Cooperation provides an opportunity to highlight the progress made in relations over the last decade. The symbolic attractive power of China, a once impoverished country victimized by Western imperialism and later held back by its own pursuit of inappropriate forms of socialism, clearly resonates with African elites looking for a positive development model from the "Third World." The 21st century is sure to see a strengthening of ties between the two regions.
Chris Alden is an author and lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has written extensively and is widely published.