Written and edited by SF Team: Igor Pejic, Yoana
Igor Pejic, graduated Political Science Foreign Affairs Department at the Faculty of Political Science and MA in Terrorism, Security and Organized Crime at the University of Belgrade, Serbia.
China’s presence in Africa dates back almost two thousand years, as some historical documents suggest that the first trades between China and Africa dated back to the time of Han dynasty. The trade which was done at that time was concentrated on the east coast of Africa, South Africa and the Island of Mauritius. There are even traces of old Chinese settlements in those regions. If we press fast forward to the year of 1949, China began to grow not only as a regional power, but also as a global one, hence China’s engagement in Africa started to take a different shape. During the fifties many African countries were struggling for independence, China saw that as an opportunity and was actively supporting many different African liberation movements. This policy is appreciated even today by some African governments. After these initial steps China competed for the influence with the West and the Soviet Union in Africa, and by 1970 China had established diplomatic ties with almost all countries across Africa. Despite the fact that the economy was going well, the trade wasn’t booming until the late eighties and nineties. Many of the common goals of the African countries and China were on the ideological plane like the anti-capitalist teachings of Marx and Mao. Even though, this policy wasn’t that good at the beginning, it enabled China to project its soft power and lay down a good foundation for the future engagement on this continent.
In the past decade China has started investing a lot of efforts and resources in Africa in order to expand its influence and policy in the region. Even though it might be considered as an expansion of the Chinese economy, on the bigger picture China is also working on the expansion of the ideological, political and security values there. All these factors are, of course, intertwined: for instance, if China wants to acquire better oil production in any African country, good political relations with that government would be essential for the purpose, and in order to sustain its assets on the ground from potential armed group attack or pirates, China will need some really good security measure. Beside these factors China is trying to represent itself, more specifically in the sphere of global politics, as an important global player. By strengthening its presence in Africa not only does China secure new potential markets and vast amounts of resources, but also boosts its position in geo-politics and international relations.
Ideological interests and the ideology itself were very important for China’s expansion in Africa, especially during the Cold War era. At that time China’s ideology of fighting capitalism, colonialism and imperialism was a cornerstone for the policy which was implemented in Africa. Since many African countries at that time were still struggling with independence and sovereignty this kind of China’s “rebellious” attitude was embraced by many states across the continent. However the Cold War is in the past and the new China is successfully implementing a hybrid form of authoritarian government and economic capitalism, this kind of political model is what China is trying to push in some African countries proving that good economy and political stability can triumph over the need of a democratic system. This China model is relatively popular among African states and it’s probably because of two reasons.
Firstly, China has proven that this kind of political system can work and can bring economic prosperity, and second China is not trying to “sell” democracy to undeveloped countries like some Western powers do. From this perspective China’s ideology only shifted and took a new form, instead of Marxist/communist agenda there is now a much more subtle form of popularization of China’s development model. The more countries adopt this non-Western/non-democratic model and start to prosper, China’s policy will be validated on the international scale, proving that Western democracy isn’t a universal value and doesn’t need to apply to every country in the world.
Political interests, beside economic, play a major role between Beijing and Africa. During the Cold War, China saw many similarities with various African countries such as fighting against colonialism and imperialism, struggle for independence and liberation and so on. These common historical goals gave Beijing a solid ground on which it could promote its political and foreign policy towards African countries. Foreign relations with African countries and China probably reached its peak during the sixties when the Americans and Soviets were deeply engaged in Africa. At that time, tense relations between China and the Soviet Union made Beijing put Africa as the top priority on its foreign relations agenda. Later during the Cultural Revolution China provided large amounts of foreign aid, much of that aid was delivered as zero-interest loans, infrastructure projects etc. These foreign aid projects contributed a lot towards establishing strong diplomatic ties with many African states, around nineteen states established diplomatic ties to China at that period. This far-reaching diplomatic game which China is playing in Africa is rather important on the global level and in the international organizations such are United Nations. There are fifty-four African countries in the UN, and China can rely on their votes in order to validate its own political agenda. This was tested after the Tiananmen Square incident 1989 when China faced serious isolation measures announced by the West, luckily six countries from southern Africa stepped up and invited Chinese Foreign Minister to visit them in 1989 thus saving them from a rather troublesome situation. Furthermore, good relationships with African countries help China in the UN with some domestic issues regarding Tibet and Taiwan. During the nineties Taiwan had substantial investments in some African states, this, of course, helped Taiwan to be recognized by those countries on the international level. However, strong foreign direct investments implemented by China pushed Taiwan out of Africa thus allowing Beijing to once again hold fast on the diplomatic reins when it comes to Taipei and their influence in Africa. At present Africa holds a third place in China’s foreign policy agenda, after big powers relations (US, Russia, EU) and periphery relations meaning relations towards neighboring countries (which by some analyst should be the top priority for China). This positioning of Africa in China’s foreign policy is probably due to economic reasons, although China seeks expansion in Africa and is working on it, the trade with the continent is heavily dwarfed in comparison to the trade with the EU or the US. We should keep in mind that this is subjected to change in the future, China’s plans for this continent do rotate around economy and trade but I will emphasize on the fact that China is seeking a land rich with resources which can be made suitable for exploitation. Foreign direct investments done by China and frequent infrastructure projects in some African states seem to suggest that.
Main security issues which trouble Chinese interests in Africa are political instability, conflicts at the state level and local criminal threats which in some countries are relatively high. Since Africa and China share a considerable geographic distance, Chinese security response to these threats cannot be as good as in their nearby periphery. There are a few strategies which are implemented and used by the Chinese government in order to counter these security risks. First of all, China puts great amount of confidence in the UN and the African Union when it comes to regulating peace and political stability across the continent, of course, this is in accordance to the Chinese policy of non-interference which allows intervention on the sovereignty of another country only based on the UN mandate and local government’s consent. It also should be noted that China is one of the largest personnel contributor to the UN peace-keeping missions across the globe, China’s troops are deployed as UN peace-keepers in African countries such are Sudan, Liberia, DRC and Mali. Following this policy, China has shown a great amount of efforts and interest in working alongside the African Union in bringing peace and stability to the continent. Beijing is providing financial support as well as training for security forces who should be dispatched on the ground on behalf of the African Union. Although this portrays China as a harbinger of peace and stability it also shows the pragmatism of the Chinese government. Boosting Africa’s own capacity to provide good security can allow China to bypass UN resolutions and missions which usually involve lengthy debates with the West. Africa and China are separated by a vast geographical distance, hence Africa can hardly represent a major security threat to the China’s stability or the stability of the Chinese region. On the other hand security threats inside Africa directly affect Chinese investments, companies and even Chinese citizens who live and work in Africa. These security challenges can hardly be resolved by the international bodies and need direct engagement of the Chinese security forces. These security challenges are further complicated because China has a rather rapid expansion across the continent and Chinese investments and citizens (there are around 1 million Chinese living in Africa in 2012) are in the need of physical security. There are several major security threats which can prove troublesome. Criminal attacks like robberies and kidnappings are the most common and probably the most damaging type of threat for the China in Africa. Then we have politically motivated attacks as a retaliation for China’s cooperation with the local governments or just for the exploitation of local recourses. Threats to the Chinese projects are constant and are mostly due to labor disputes and illegal activities in which some of the Chinese companies participate. And finally we have pirates which are present near Somalia. China is trying to tackle all of these challenges, yet it has some major difficulties since private contractors or private firms which provide security are usually hard to employ because of the legal issues in China’s law. Nevertheless China is actively battling piracy by deploying some of the naval forces in accordance with the international law and international institutions. All of the mentioned security challenges are not insurmountable, by further expansion into Africa, China will try to boost the local security forces by financial means. Of course, as expansion reaches its peak private contractors will certainly find a way to employ themselves if there is a profit to be made.
There is a strong debate in China whether economic interests or political interests are the main reason why China is expanding in Africa. Although, the Chinese establishment always points out that their engagement in Africa started way before the big economic growth in China and put the accent on the political sphere, there is no denying that economy especially today plays a major role between these two global entities. The economic relations between China and Africa can be divided in three different stages/periods of time. The first one is from 1949 to 1979 where China was primarily motivated by political reasons and was focused on providing economic help to the newly independent African countries, the goal was to build good diplomatic relations with those states. The next stage is from 1979 to the mid-nineties when China focused on itself or more precisely on its domestic economy. At that time China’s policy towards Africa shifted from extracting political favors to mutual economy and trade, and from providing assistance to promoting investments. In 1996, theory of utilizing both domestic and international markets took a significant place in China’s foreign policy, at that time China’s investments and companies started to take a different approach when it came to Africa and other suitable regions for economic expansion. There are four main strategies which China pursues in Africa: access to natural recourses like oil and gas, suitable markets for Chinese exports, political legitimacy on the international level and overall security, prosperity, stability of the entire continent in order to boost the standard for the African nations but also for their own companies and employees. The first two strategies are of great importance for the Chinese economic expansion in Africa. Africa is rich in resources like oil, gas and minerals. All of these things boost China’s industrialization and fulfill the need for raw materials and resources. In the late nineties government in China actively supported the so called “going out” strategy where domestic companies (state and private) were encouraged to invest abroad, especially in regions such as Africa, which has abundant resources of all kinds. By 2020, China is predicted to surpass the US in oil imports and by 2035 China will probably become the world’s largest consumer of this commodity. So for this strategy to work China has to secure the future supply of this commodity. Countries such as Nigeria, Sudan and Angola are primary targets for Chinese oil investments which are already on the way. Africa also represents an untapped market for Chinese products. Chinese industries which produce textile, electronics and other relatively low price products can fit perfectly for markets of some poorer African countries. After the 2008 economic crisis African markets became even more popular for the Chinese producers. When the crisis hit, stagnant Western economies it lowered the need for some Chinese exports. In order to fill that void China turned to Africa. According to some reports the 2008 economic crisis is the main reason why China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner. Lastly, there is a vast labor resource in Africa which is unutilized to a great extent. In China there are a lot of labor-intensive industries and as the country progresses forward so will the market, and the labor force won’t be as cheap as it was. In the future China will probably try to transfer some of its industrial sector to Africa, most of that will be low-skilled jobs or labor-intensive production. By doing so, China will seek more capital-intensive, high-tech industries and jobs to improve its own development back at home. All of these economic goals that China is trying to utilize in Africa can be considered as a form of exploitation and could probably lead to riots or animosity towards Chinese investors. With good political background and active support towards African countries for better stability, security and better standard of living, China can prevent these factors which can threaten their further expansion on this continent.
China’s engagement in Africa will certainly grow in the future, although there are various challenges which need special attention. These challenges can be resolved by implementation of correct policy and economic strategies. For instance, if China regulates and boosts working conditions for African employees many labor disputes, that can lead to violent strikes, can be prevented; and by training or increasing financial aid towards African security forces many of the security issues could be resolved without the involvement of international factors. Although there is one matter on which China needs to pay attention in the future. Many African countries look up to China to provide it with political recognition and legitimacy but also to contribute to their development through aid, investment and infrastructure projects. The reason why African leaders want Chinese partners and not Western is that dialogue with the Western countries/investors, whether it’s political or economic, usually ends in preaching about good governance, human rights, freedoms, or etc. Also, many African officials aspire to the Chinese development model of integrating authoritarian government with the capitalist economic system. In order to secure its place in Africa, China will need to tend to these “aspiration” and acknowledge some kind of “mentorship” to these African states. Of course this won’t come cheap, pushing China’s development model on the African continent will certainly be perceived as some kind of hostile activity by other international entities, but if China steps down and more importantly lets down their African counterparts in their aspiration towards Chinese model of government, it can result in bad situation for Chinese expansion further into Africa.