China-Africa relations: looking beyond the critics

Published on Pambazuka News, by Babette Zoumara and Abdul-Rauf Ibrahim, June 6, 2013.

Africa is lacking a clear and unified policy in terms of how it relates to China. In developing further social, economic and political ties with China, African leaders must develop a coherent and structured plan to promote the interests of Africans … //




Similarly in 2007, Philippe Maystdt, past President of the European Bank, renewed this propaganda. He claimed that loans could drive the debt of Africa to dangerous levels if China continued to lend too easily; in other words, lend to Africa without conditions. He then, asked the European Union (EU) to open dialogue with China to discuss the problems of loans without conditions (ECDPM 2007). In the same year, Hilary James Benn, former British secretary for international development, cautioned the European Community during a visit to Malawi and boldly declared that ‘Chinese aid do more harm than good’ in Africa (ECDPM 2007). According to him, the unconditional aid could lead to setbacks in terms of democracy and human rights developments. Furthermore, Louis Michel, European commissioner for development, during an annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in 2006, advised the European Union to cease attacks on China on the issue of interest-free loans granted to the poorest countries. In fact, he strongly recommended inclusion of China as a partner for promotion of effective development of Africa (ECDPM 2007); in other words, to politically or strategically muzzle China. In a newspaper published by the China Youth Daily and the China Review in February 2007, Solana Javie, a former Representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, supported the proposal of Louis Michel (Solana 2007). Perhaps, with these comments in mind, the then Director General of the European Commission launched a conference on the 28th of June 2007 dubbed ‘Partners in competition, EU, Africa and China’. This brought together 180 think-tanks and experts such as policy makers, academicians and representatives of civil society and business from China, Africa and the EU to deliberate on the way forward (ECDPM 2007).



Another problem is the lack of coherent and collective policy. While China has a clear and strategic policy for Africa, Africa as a united force has no unified policy for its relations with China. Indeed, it is a worrying situation for a relation that is supposed to be based on mutual values in terms of cooperation, trust and development to lack this key ingredient. Each African country therefore, pursues the relation based on its unique needs and development agenda resulting in weak bargaining power in certain aspects and attracting less developmental projects from China. A further troubling aspect is the lack of adequate participation of the African private sector, media and academia in this partnership. For instance, during the conference on China-Africa in 2006, the African private sector was not adequately represented. There were nearly 300 Chinese private firms but only a handful of their African counterparts. This seems to suggest that as Chinese private companies show interest in building long term relations with Africa, the continents private firms do not appear to show much interest in sustaining the relationship or are not given the necessary incentive to augment governmental efforts. This will inevitably create gaps between internal policies of African countries and their implementations.


Therefore, Africa must necessarily develop a coherent and structured plan in successfully asserting its political, economic and social ties with China. It must avoid repeating some of the mistakes committed in its past relations with its traditional development partners. In the meantime, African leaders must be able to define and formulate strategic and comprehensive policies, individually, for the influx of Chinese investments. For instance, they must exert pressure on China and together, differentiate and separate investments and loans CLEARLY from interest free loans, grants and aid projects. In fact, several writers have already pointed out the fact that there seem not to be difference, at least on the part of China, between investment and aid projects (Shinn 2012; Der Lug et al. 2011). For example, David Shinn, adjunct professor at George Washington University pointed out that China mixes aid with commercial deals, enabling Chinese construction enterprises access to infrastructural projects in Africa (Shinn 2012). Even the Center for Chinese studies (CCS) based in South Africa appears to agree with this. They believe that ‘Chinese government officials rarely distinguish aid and investments’ (Der Lug et al. 2011).

In any case, the distinction of projects will make it easier to handle and formulate appropriate policies to effectively manage respective projects (Investment, grants loans or grants) such that clearly China could be dealt with as a business partner in terms of investments and loan projects (commercial deals) or as a development partner when it comes to grants and aid projects. As it stands now, it is not easy to tell whether Africa sees China as business partner (an investor) or development partner (a friend). Furthermore, clear distinction of these projects will make easier for tracking and at the same time holding the various governments and implementing agencies accountable. This will among other things, ensure sanity, dedication to job, sense of duty, transparency and above all, mitigate corruption. In this regards, the private sector, business community, academia and more importantly, the media must be encouraged and given the opportunity to vet and critic these Chinese contracted developmental projects.
There are successful and intelligent men and women in all fields living in Africa as well as in the Diaspora that can give Africa value for money considering project contracts and negotiations. Until this is done and African leaders began using these best brains so as to obtain better deals from China, the relations will certainly not be totally different from Africa’s past ones.
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