China’s Expanding Role in Africa and Implications for the United States
January 29, 2007
On January 1, 2007, just two months after the historic China-Africa summit in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing embarked on a whirlwind, seven-nation tour in Africa, making stops in Benin, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, and Botswana. During his visit, Li continued to emphasize key summit themes: China’s common ground with Africa and its desire for closer dialogue and cooperation in areas such as peacekeeping operations, economic cooperation, human resources development, public health, education, and agribusiness. These are the themes that have characterized China’s immensely successful diplomacy in the developing world in recent years as it forges ahead with its South-South partnership.
At the November summit, China’s highest leadership espoused their ambitious vision for China-Africa relations before an enthusiastic audience that included a broad range of African leaders. Forty-eight African countries were represented, and 43 heads of state were among the attendees. The Chinese push forward in Africa could benefit the region in significant ways. Hopes have been raised by the substantial resources and attention China is devoting to long-neglected areas, such as railway construction, road rehabilitation, and telecommunications. Ambassador Princeton Lyman pointed out in a December 1, 2006 essay in this Forum that China’s expanding Africa role is no mere quest for resources, although this has been a significant feature of China’s engagement to date. Rather, it is a strategic, multi-dimensional initiative that envisages Africa as “a growing market and possibly a source over the long run for food, manufacturing, and industrial goods.”
China’s dynamic engagement has its drawbacks of course – such as the possibility that it will help to entrench authoritarian and corrupt regimes in resource-rich countries – and these have been emphasized by many authors. (See, for example, Howard W. French, “Commentary: China and Africa,” African Affairs, January 2007). Nonetheless, China’s initiative could help to propel much more rapid economic growth in Africa and boost African capacities in critical sectors, such as health and education. In December 2006, a delegation from the Center for Strategic and International Studies visited China in order to gain a better understanding of China’s burgeoning African involvement and its implications. The delegation included representatives from the academic world and business, as well as from civil society and non-governmental organizations. The delegation’s report will be issued shortly.
By way of preview, the report finds that several factors are strengthening and facilitating China’s approach. Chinese officials portray themselves as seeking only friendly and respectful political linkages with Africa, based on a legacy of over 50 years of solidarity and development assistance. China’s historical experience and development model resonate powerfully with African counterparts, creating a comparative advantage vis-à-vis the West. China’s optimistic view of Africa’s prospects is a powerful motivating factor. Chinese leaders and strategists maintain that Africa is on the verge of developmental take-off – another idea that is well-received in the region – because the civil wars that raged in more than a dozen countries in the 1990s now seem to be easing. Consequently, Chinese policymakers argue, the continent is now entering a transitional period of relative peace and stability. Pockets of conflict still remain in areas such as Darfur, Somalia, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ivory Coast, but overall, the Chinese argue, Africa is poised for growth, creating an opportune moment for a more engaged and expansive Chinese role.
This positive vision of current world trends is not limited to Africa, of course. Building a strategic partnership with Africa fits squarely within Beijing’s global foreign policy, which includes important initiatives in Latin America and the Middle East as well. While China’s ambitious and complex Africa policy may in due course bring financial and political payoffs, multiple risks also attend the strategy. Economic and political conditions may not be as favorable for growth as the Chinese believe, and the chances of near to medium-term setbacks are high. The business calculations that lie behind China’s major investments are murky, and many will likely turn out badly. The bet that China can make lasting improvements Africa’s infrastructure where others have failed awaits proof of success.
Experience has shown that while it is possible to create infrastructure in Africa, maintaining that infrastructure is another matter altogether. The expectation that China can have significant sway politically must take account of Africa’s sensitivity to anything that smacks of neo-colonialism. China will also be challenged by the dysfunctional political realities characteristic of many African states today. In selecting energy-rich Angola and Nigeria as preferred partners, and in choosing to invest in Zimbabwe, China has selected three of the region’s most corrupt and difficult environments. In Sudan, Beijing is engaging a partner embedded in enormous political and moral controversies of its own making. In South Africa, it is dealing with a country that is acutely sensitive to perceived infringements on its sovereignty.
Beijing is already beginning to encounter problems. Pay and working conditions in Chinese-operated mines in Zambia became an election issue in that mineral-rich country in 2006. South African trade unions, meanwhile, have expressed their opposition to the flooding of South African markets by Chinese textiles. The reaction of China’s ambassador to criticisms from Zambian presidential candidate Michael Sata were heavy-handed to say the least. Li Baodong said that new investments had been put on hold pending the outcome of the election. Moreover, relations might be broken if Sata won and carried through with a threat to restore ties with Taiwan. Sata’s defeat took the issue off the table for the time being, but the uproar suggested that China’s path in Africa will not always be an easy one. In South Africa, China has chosen to be more responsive to popular sentiment, agreeing to voluntary textile export quotas that have now been put in place.
China’s expansive engagement in Africa has significant implications for U.S. interests in Africa and around the world, as well as for U.S.-China relations. It comes in a period of major parallel expansion of U.S. commitments in Africa, propelled by the growing U.S. response to global infectious disease and mounting American concerns over energy security and the international terror threat. The United States remains a firm supporter of the “Washington consensus” among donors that emphasizes conditionalities on aid intended to promote economic reform and good governance. This is precisely opposite to the approach China is taking with its aid and loans. The tripling of U.S. foreign aid that has occurred during the Bush administration includes the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a five year, $15 billion program, and aid through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a major initiative aimed at strengthening the economic performance of well-governed states, several in Africa. U.S. military engagement in Africa has expanded significantly, especially in the Horn of Africa, the Sahara/Sahelian zone, and the Gulf of Guinea maritime zone. The U.S. Defense Department, meanwhile, is moving forward with plans to create a new Africa Command. U.S. investment in Africa’s energy sector, and its dependence upon Africa to meet its rising energy needs, have both steadily expanded, in parallel with a similarly robust pattern of rising Chinese oil dependency on Africa. Within the next decade, the United States will rely upon Africa for 20-25 percent of its oil imports..
China’s ambitious, high-profile role in Africa challenges the United States to think far more comprehensively and strategically about how it will engage China on Africa matters in the future. A part of that challenge, for both the United States and China, will be trying to avoid the trap of a damaging and unnecessary strategic competition in Africa. To achieve this, both the United States and China will need to give far higher priority to working together, innovatively, assiduously and carefully, and to enlarging senior-level communications between the United States and China on Africa matters. Better management of areas of tension will be required, and both parties will have to find means of circumnavigating areas of special sensitivity on either side without sacrificing principle. Both countries should give far greater prominence to African input in devising a common way forward in integrating Africa into the global economy. They should work far more systematically within existing multilateral channels, especially those based in Africa, to harmonize donor approaches on debt relief, investments in public health, and related issues.
Finally, China and the United States should seriously consider options that hold promise for concrete collaboration, especially in the areas of conflict resolution; fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria and other infectious diseases; strengthening African peacekeeping capacity; and working to reduce crime and corruption. The United States and China have strong shared interests across a range of economic and security issues. These argue in favor of a closer alignment of approaches in dealing with Africa. However, China seems to believe that it has a special mission and a unique opportunity in Africa. This could tend to dissuade it from cooperation with the United States unless the United States makes a convincing case for collaboration. Unfortunately, U.S. officials are not yet giving China’s rise in Africa the attention it deserves. This should change.
The Online Africa Policy Forum is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).