Prediction: The Near Future of Sino-African Relations

5 November 2009

From 8th November African nations will meet with China for a 2-day Forum on China-Africa Co-operation in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh. Top leaders like Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are scheduled to attend the opening ceremony.

The theme of the meeting revolves around “deepening the new type of China-Africa strategic partnership and seeking sustainable development”, a Chinese state official claimed in a press release earlier this week. This likely means that the talks will be focused on economic, trade, and development issues, with military and political issues somewhat sidelined.

This is in keeping with the nature of the last China-Africa Cooperation Forum, held in November 2006. There China agreed to double assistance to Africa in three years, provide $5 billion in loans and credits, set aside another $5 billion fund for Chinese investment, and cancel debts owed by the most indebted and least developed African nations.

According to Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, “all these measures have been implemented smoothly over the past three years.” Still, many feel that the economic dimension of the Sino-African relationship isn’t of primary importance. Some urge instead that the moral cost of China’s strategy deserves greater attention.

This was exemplified earlier this month when a key trade deal between Guinea’s government and a sizeable Chinese firm finally cemented. The deal, worth around $7 billion, gave limited oil and mining rights to China International Fund in return for large-scale investment in various infrastructure projects. The problem with the deal, though, was that it completely overlooked the dissatisfying human rights record of Guinea’s currently ruling junta. In late September that junta cracked down on more than a hundred civilian protestors, in a repressive and bloody reaction that received censure from both the European Union and the African Union.

This sort of pattern, whereby China permits significant trade to pass by without so much as a political murmur – where others would raise a political outcry – isn’t uncommon. Last year China was criticized for selling arms to the Sudanese government. Military support was widely perceived to be an integral part of the economic relationship between the two countries, by means of which China imported two-thirds of Sudanese oil.

The issue of future Chinese diplomacy in the continent is rather tricky. There are two short-term issues for that can be singled out here: the corruption and the benefits involved with Chinese investment.

Firstly, concerns over the secretive way China employs foreign aid and investment are rising. A month ago in Namibia charges of corruption were levelled at a state-controlled Chinese company for easing a deal with illegal and undeclared millions. That company, incidentally, was run last year by Hu Haifeng, the son of the Chinese President. So the lack of transparency in China’s foreign assistance policy, which falls short of international norms, is a worry for those who think that Chinese investment might be benefitting the wrong people.

Secondly, though, there is no denying that Chinese strategy has brought some genuine material benefit to the continent. China has played a crucial role in almost 900 development projects, involving for example the construction of roads and dams, and has waived, either partially or totally, debt from 35 African countries. It has also helped to train tens of thousands of personnel in addition to sending over more than 15,000 medical staff.

In all, however, the future doesn’t look too promising or settled for those mindful of the links between Chinese trade and African human rights and good governance. Corruption and politically unconditioned economic policy may well outweigh the benefits of brutally material Chinese attention. At the very least, the two sides of the Chinese strategy will remain in uneasy balance for the near future.  

The economic future of the relationship, though, is not so indeterminate. Annual trade between the two is now estimated at over $100 billion. This flourishing relationship is driven by China’s growing need for natural resources, especially oil, and also by Africa’s need for effective development projects. There is no reason to think that these fundamental needs will abate in the short-term. Chinese influence on infrastructure in the continent is also too entrenched to encounter sudden reversal or removal. Expect strengthened relations even amidst the financial crisis, and look to Angola and Nigeria for especially important energy ties.

African responses are varied, but one comment by the Rwandan President stands out: “The Chinese bring what Africa needs: investment and money for government and companies…I would prefer the Western world to invest in Africa rather than handing out development aid.”

It’s improbable that any explicit groundbreaking strategy will emerge from the upcoming conference; but the quiet cementing and expansion of trade ties, and equally quiet diplomatic discretion, are undoubted results. International observers are also likely to be quiet until one of these issues flares up in a major way.

Nat Rudarakanchana – Deputy International News Editor