Date published on SAFPI:
Monday, 25 June, 2012
Date published on source:
Sunday, 24 June, 2012
The Korea Herald
Deconstructing China’s involvement in Africa
Seoul: The People’s Republic of China’s unprecedented worldwide economic expansion in the years after its World Trade Organization accession created abundant opportunities for US-China coordination, cooperation or collaboration on matters peripheral to bilateral relations, such as trilateral regional engagement outside the Asia-Pacific. The thrust of US policy over that span has been to encourage China to participate fully, not selectively, in the response to common international challenges and in the (re)enforcement of international norms. In African affairs, however, China has been reluctant to synchronize policy.
Next month, Chinese and African leaders will convene in Beijing for the fifth iteration of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a triennial ministerial that will again draw the attention of those Western cognoscenti who have monitored the intensification of Sino-African ties over the last dozen years.
In the press and academia, Chinese activities in Africa have been catalogued, and their effects on African practices in trade, development and human rights analyzed, most often in normative terms, in order to compare and contrast the efficacy of Chinese and Western engagement with Africa.
Such analysis often overlooks this: Africans will determine the terms on which they receive China in Africa.
The more interesting question for Washington policymakers, and the question implicit in the preoccupation with the China-Africa dynamic, is what China’s relations with African states and regional institutions may tell us more broadly about Chinese foreign policy in emerging regions.
Toward that end, China’s recent engagement in Africa is characterized by incrementalism, pragmatism and exceptionalism.
Incrementalism. The explosive growth in China-Africa commerce is fueled by the extractive industries, producing nearly balanced trade. China seeks to correct imbalances in other areas through concessional loans, funding for joint ventures and foreign direct investment. Its own experience with special economic zones (SEZs) informed its decision to establish six SEZs with African partners.
It also created a multibillion dollar fund to incentivize investment by Chinese firms in Africa. This state-supported, incremental approach ― which is neither slow nor small ― applies across all sectors. Likewise, China’s military ties in Africa advance through accretive contributions to peacekeeping operations, increased military training and the equipping of foreign militaries. It’s anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden provide a pilot for future blue water naval capabilities.
Pragmatism. Prior to 2001, China’s relations with African states were long characterized by ideological solidarity and cultural exchange. As China’s economic growth overseas accelerated, it strengthened ties with governments across the ideological spectrum, confident that it can navigate political transitions when necessary.
In Sudan, China for years backed a unified state, but recognized South Sudan on its establishment and sought to strengthen ties with the new nation even after conflict reignited between north and south.
Exceptionalism. In African affairs, China works far more in parallel with than within the current architecture of the international system and distances itself from policies that are too closely identified with Western interests.
China’s approach stands out in every important aspect: design, scope and impact. FOCAC is distinguishable from other international initiatives because it covers comprehensively political, economic and social ties and does not include traditional institutional partners, such as the World Bank. China’s loans, tariff reductions, debt forgiveness and SEZs are largely outside frameworks established by the international financial institutions. These are not attempts to position China within the international system, but alongside it.
Similarly, Chinese diplomatic initiatives are often done without prior coordination with other international stakeholders. China selectively works with multilateral institutions, on its terms.
China opted for exceptionalism despite rarely being in direct economic competition with the West, save in certain cases in the extractive industries. This suggests that China is not content to be a stakeholder in the current world order: it actively seeks a different world order.
For Washington policymakers, “China-Africa” analysis should be viewed primarily as a tool to better understand China, not Africa states. At the next FOCAC, China will refine and amplify its commitments to Africa. Later in the year, China’s leadership succession will provide greater insight into its global intentions. However, the structure of China’s approach to Africa is unlikely to change.
The implications for U.S. policy are several.
First, China’s incremental approach tips the emphasis and direction of Chinese policy in emerging regions. The United States should be particularly sensitive to any significant increase in alternative currency swap arrangements with African states, or other monetary moves, that undermine the reserve currency status of the U.S. dollar. Basing agreements between China and African states might indicate the nature of China’s future force posture.
Second, its pragmatism means that outcomes are not preordained. Understanding how China assesses and prioritizes its interests will provide the best indication of the direction of Chinese policy in emerging regions.
Finally, the emphasis in discussion on matters peripheral to the U.S.-China bilateral relationship may have to shift from cooperation to the management of friction. Two independent approaches to regional affairs do not necessarily equate to conflict or competition, but risks increase where norms cannot be reconciled and systems are closed to each other.
* Paradiso is a career foreign service officer with extensive service in Africa and elsewhere. The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the U.S. government or the U.S. Department of State.
MCT Information Services.