Friday, December 15, 2006

China and Neo-Colonialism in Africa: A Warning from South Africa

I recently wrote about accusations of Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa, and Chinese sensitivities to these accusations. Larry Catá Backer, “The Problems of Being a great Power: China and Neo-Colonialism in Africa, Law at the End of the Day, Nov. 22, 2006. A recent story published by the BBC emphasizes African sensitivities to what may be seen, through African eyes, as Chinese neo-colonialism in Africa. “Mbecki Warns on China-Africa Ties, BBC News, Dec. 14, 2006. It also suggests that despite its unique historical relationship with Africa, China may not be able to avoid being painted as just another great power exploiter on the African continent—at least to the extent that such a portrayal works to the benefit of African elites.

The Chinese recently hosted the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, information about which was posted by the Chinese at a dedicated site. As the Chinese reported it,

“The Beijing Summit of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Sunday adopted a declaration in the Chinese capital, proclaiming establishment of "a new type of strategic partnership" between China and Africa. The partnership features "political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchanges", said the declaration, which was adopted by leaders of China and 48 African countries at the end of the two-day gathering. The declaration was read out by Chinese President Hu Jintao, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Egyptian President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, followed by a group photo of the leaders attending the summit.” Beijing Summit adopts declaration, highlighting China-Africa strategic partnership 2006-11-05 17:01:03 Source Xinhua.

There was much care taken to emphasize the growing importance of China-Africa relations. “"We take great pride in China's strong and warm friendship with Africa," said Chinese Vice-Premier Wu Yi at the opening of the conference. As its economy booms, China's drive to buy African oil and other commodities has led to a big increase in two-way trade, worth $42bn (£22bn) in 2005.” Trade to Top China-Africa Summit, BBC News, Nov. 3, 2006. At the same time, the Chinese pent the two days of the conference making great power deals. “At the opening ceremony Saturday, President Hu announced a package of aid and assistance measures to Africa including 3 billion U.S. dollars of preferential loans in next three years and the exemption of more debt owed by poor African countries. Early Sunday morning, the 2nd Conference of Chinese and African Entrepreneurs concluded with 14 agreements signed between 11 Chinese enterprises and African governments and firms, worth 1.9 billion U.S. dollars in total.” Beijing Summit adopts declaration, highlighting China-Africa strategic partnership, Nov. 5, 2006 at 17:01:03 Source, Xinhua. In particular, the Chinese secured agreement on institutionalizing political cooperation within the United Nations framework. “They agreed to set up a mechanism of regular political dialogue between foreign ministers of the two sides within the FOCAC framework, deciding that the following year of every FOCAC Ministerial Conference, foreign ministers from the two sides will hold political consultation in New York on the sideline of the UN General Assembly to exchange views on major issues of common interest.” Action plan adopted at China-Africa summit, mapping cooperation course, Nov. 5, 2006 at 17:02:01 Source Xinhua.

All of these maneuverings make perfect sense, given China’s rising position in the world. The China Africa Summit provides China with a natural venue for projecting its economic power. And it acted the way all great powers act in those situations—it showed selected generosity to its most cooperative friends on a state to state level, it used the venue as a place where a number of economic ties could be strengthened and deals (already well into their negotiations) could be finalized, and additional relations cultivated. China could provide aid on two tracks—the development oriented aid it was famous for prior to the advent of market socialism (building hospitals, combating disease, education and training, etc.), and now the more typical enterprise to enterprise relationships of globalization (“a high-level dialogue and entrepreneurs conference opened at the Great Hall of the People, where Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao proposed China and Africa fully tap cooperation potential.”). Action plan adopted at China-Africa summit, mapping cooperation course, Nov. 5, 2006 at 17:02:01 Source Xinhua.

And the criticisms of these actions from the usual sources also ought to be expected. For example, “Taiwan has called on the five African countries with whom it has diplomatic relations not to attend the summit.” Trade to Top China-Africa Summit, BBC News, Nov. 3, 2006). More difficult, of course, are the charges that Chinese factory owners treat their African workers no better than any other exploiter nation. “Protests broke out in Zambia in July about the alleged ill-treatment of workers at a Chinese-owned mine, and there have been reports of pay disputes in Namibia.” Id. This is sometimes excused. “China's supporters point to the fact that it has invested billions of dollars in aid, cheap loans and helping to upgrade roads, ports, railways, telephone lines, power stations and other key infrastructure across Africa.” Id. And in any case, like Western sourced investment in Africa, “Many economists argue that overall, China's growing economic ties to Africa are benefiting the region.” Id.

More troubling for China, though, may be changes in the attitude of critical players in Africa. Of particular interest, on this score, are some recent remarks of South African President Thabo Mbecki, who recently returned from the great public relations and deal making extravaganza in China. Speaking to a student congress in Cape Town (well away from his Chinese hosts), he declared, “Africa must guard against falling into a ‘colonial relationship’ with China, South African President Thabo Mbecki has warned the continent.” “Mbecki Warns on China-Africa Ties, BBC News, Dec. 14, 2006. There is a bit of irony here. Like his Chinese hosts at the November 2006 Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Mbecki spoke of the critical need to strive for a relationship based on equality. Id. Butr it appears that the Chinese and the South African President might have had different things in mind when they used these terms. The Chinese spoke of “political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchanges” Beijing Summit adopts declaration, highlighting China-Africa strategic partnership, Nov. 5, 2006 at 17:01:03 Source Xinhua (conference declaration). But Mbecki spoke of a “relationship with China to be based on equal trade.” “Mbecki Warns on China-Africa Ties, BBC News, Dec. 14, 2006. Mbecki “said that if Africa just exported raw materials to China while importing Chinese manufactured goods, the African continent could be ‘condemned to underdevelopment.’” Id.

The two statements do not necessarily point to the same thing. And indeed, the differences may highlight the great gulf that already separates the Chinese from their African trading partners. The differences suggest the difficulty for China of avoiding inevitably developing a relationship with Africa similar in critical respects to the relationship between Africa and the rest of the developed world. From the African perspective, China, like the Europeans, Russians and Americans before them, may be seeking to build a base of exploitation through client states, through an aggressive use of their wealth and strategic use of their investment power. Indeed, Mbecki suggested that unless Chinese patterns of investment change, the China Africa relationship “would simply mean ‘a replication’ of Africa’s historical relationship with its former colonial powers.” Id. As a consequence, China’s current advantage in its quest for influence and trade in Africa may be short lived and more troublesome than the current Chinese leadership might hope for, and provide its enemies in Taiwan with excellent ammunition in its competition with the mainland for business in Africa.

But this “hardening of his position on the subject” (id.) of Africa China relations, may also have strategic value to Mbecki in particular and Africa in general. The bargaining relationship between China and any single African state is hopelessly one sided, even now. This mirrors the traditional relationships between African states and other developed states. In the absence of a unified approach to relations, something that is still far in the future and dependent on the development of the African Union, African leaders may seek to deploy old patterns of advantage to new uses. In this case, accusations of neo-colonialism have been successfully used against developed states and their multinational corporations as a trade strategy. These charges sell well in the West and affect sensitive consumer and investor markets. To paint China with the same brush might have the same effect, given the relationship of China to Western markets generally. In addition, neo-colonialism serves as a powerful tool of African exceptionalism, for example, with respect to intellectual property. There is a great irony here—even as China increasingly agrees to abide by global intellectual property norms itself, it may be required to make exception in its relationships with Africa. There is little that China can do to either avoid the charges or minimize the bargaining value of neo-colonialist allegations. And indeed, China could not avoid the rules of global economic competition within the developing world if it hopes to compete successfully against its European, Japanese, Korean and American rivals. Thus, even as the Beijing Summit of the Forum for China Africa Cooperation illustrates China’s growing power in Africa and in world trade, it also points to the future difficulties China will encounter in attempting to seek advantage in those arenas.

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