Contrary to the claims of critics, China's partnership with Africa is based on sincere friendship, equality and mutual respect for the sovereignty through non-interference in domestic affairs and the offer of loans and grants
The emergence of China onto the global economic arena has received much attention, perhaps than any emerging economy the world has seen; and several reasons are attributed to this. Compelling are the sudden and astronomical increase of Chinese outward FDI (UNCTAD 2009) and the nature of this outward FDI; especially as it tends to defy all traditional principles governing outward FDI, particularly to Africa.
The continent is home to enormous raw materials, enough to capture the attention of any industrialized nation; China is no exception. Africa is the world's powerhouse of untapped natural resources; in fact it has about 99 percent of the world's chrome, 85 percent platinum, 68 percent cobalt, 54 percent gold and other precious minerals (Nevin 2008).
As a result, it has been the focus of the industrialized world such that any inquest into the continent by a potential investor attracts attention and suspicion. Consequently, there has been much debate on China-Africa relationship recently; specifically, the increasing role of China in the socio-economic affairs of Africa (Adama Gaye 2006; Alden et al 2008; Baah and Jauch 2009; Brautigam 2009; Broadman 2008; Chan 2006; Eisenman 2007; Kent et al 2009; Li 2007; Michal 2007; Muekalia 2004; Taylor 2007; Yu 1988; Zweig and Jianhai 2005). These debates usually revolve around two main issues; the motives behind the rapidly growing interests of China in Africa, and its implications on Africa's sustainable developments.
Critics attribute the growing relationship to China's 'hunger' for raw materials to feed its booming economy. They see China in Africa as an 'imperial power' practicing 'virtual colonialism' (Adama Gaye 2006) and they express concern on China's neutrality about the actions of perceived dreadful dictators in Africa and criticize Beijing for not pushing for regime change in, for instance, Sudan. They warn that China is not a reliable partner and predict that it will abandon Africa as soon as its needs are met.
However, they acknowledge that China's role in the infrastructural and industrial development as well as the swift cancellation of African debts is undeniably commendable (Gaye and Brautigam 2007). Yet they quickly caution that China is not a philanthropist but rather maneuvering to woo and buy the African 'good will'.
They also argue that the aid China offers is so little to address Africa's developmental needs and that this aid goes essentially to nations with endowed natural resources; and accuse China of grabbing exclusively 'huge' natural resources while dumping only cheap manufactured products in Africa, emphasizing that the only motive behind Chinese activities in Africa is to serve its own national interests. They argue further that by pursuing and practicing non-interference policy, China is indirectly destroying the democratic dispensation in Africa which will eventually lead to massive corruption and human rights violations among other woes (Baah and Jauch 2009; Chan 2006; Kent et al 2009; Michal 2007; Taylor 2007; Zweig and Jianhai 2005).
However, proponents are optimistic about the relationship; they consider China a reliable partner for Africa, citing the numerous visits by Chinese leaders to Africa as assurances that China values its relationship with Africa (Muekalia 2004). Another issue they point to is the fact that China continues to contribute to the development of African countries in the form of grants and aid projects. They argue that China never claimed philanthropist status and that it has repeatedly stated on several platforms that its aid to Africa is not charity but based on mutual respect and benefit. They also point out that by granting loans at almost zero interest rates without conditions and cancelling the debts of Africa, China has given Africa the rarest opportunity and the needed revenue to plan and execute its developmental programs on its own terms without having to apply for and meet certain 'specialized' conditions (Michal 2007). They cite further the voluntary export restrictions imposed by China on the importation of Chinese textiles into the South-African market and the open critics China gave to its entrepreneurs concerning labour practices during the Zambian workers riot as a mark of a listening partner and a trustworthy ally.
On the issue of Darfur, they argue that once the Chinese president (Hu Jintao) chided his Sudanese counterpart (in 2007) concerning the atrocities in the area. It is an indication that China does not support the violence in the region pointing out that China could not have done more as it would mean interfering directly in the internal affairs of a sovereign state (Scalapino, 1964; Yu, 1988) which would expose China as a hypocrite to its own foreign policy. They conclude that the relationship between China and Africa has been mutually beneficial; especially in terms of infrastructural developments, an issue, even critics agree (Alden et al 2008; Brautigam 2009; Broadman 2008; Eisenman 2007; Gaye and Brautigam 2007; Li 2007; Taylor 2007).
Therefore, China like any nation pursues policies (foreign, domestic, trade, investment) based on its national interests and must not be reviled. Besides, in spite of all the media (mostly Western) hype, available data show that as of 2008, the dominant investment sector pursued by China was in the service sector (38.8 per cent ) followed by the finance sector (25.1 per cent), the retail sector (25.7 per cent) before the mining sector (10.4 per cent) (Ramasamy et al. 2012). Traditionally, Africa has had relationships with Western nations for almost half a century but little is said about the motives of the West in Africa in terms of raw materials. The Western nations benefited enormously from Africa's raw materials just as China is beginning to, contrast the benefits from both relationships: while trade and economic embargos, sanctions, unfulfilled financial commitments in some cases, advocacy for regimes changes and, sadly, difficult and strict lending conditions are imposed on Africa by its traditional partners under the disguise of democracy, accountability, good governance and structural adjustment programs, China's partnership is based on sincere friendship, equality and mutual (win-win) respect for the sovereignty (Yu 1988) of African nations through non-interference in domestic affairs and the offer of loans and grants without 'crippling and killing' conditions (Michal 2007). Ironically, the international community, while castigating China for its strategy in Africa, is pushing China to lend to Africa with conditions (Wissenbach and Berger 2007). One only wonders why, especially as it has become clear that Africa cannot develop under such restrictions (Easterly 2002).
Hence the motives of China in Africa are clear; it seeks partnership based on sincere friendship, equality and mutual (win-win) respect for sovereignty through non-interference and the offer of loans and grants without 'crippling' conditions (Michal 2007).
The issue of the implications of China-Africa relationship on Africa's sustainable development cannot be solely and squarely placed on China. The strategy of China in dealing with Africa offers African governments the needed revenue to prioritize and implement projects of absolute necessity and in accordance with their development agenda for accelerated and sustained socio-economic development. The onus lies with African leaders to conceive and execute pragmatic projects, and to direct Chinese investments and aid into sectors that will yield maximum benefits and impact positively on the lives of its people. For instance, a lot of empirical analyses have shown positive correlation between higher education and socio-economic developments (Bloom et al 2006). African leaders could push for more scholarships for African students to pursue higher education in all fields of academia in China. They could also advocate for grants to build new universities in their respective countries and to equip the existing ones with state of the art research tools and materials. These would bring not only the desired growth but sustained development for Africa (Varghese 2004; Zhiqun 2007).
Babette Zoumara is a PhD candidate, Department of International Relations, College of South East Asian Studies, Xiamen University