About four decades ago, the Chinese braved the natural elements to help construct what has come to represent one of the great symbols of Sino-Africa cooperation – the nearly 2,000 kilometer Tazara railway stretching from land-locked Zambia through Tanzania to the coast. Delivered in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, this gift represents China’s agenda to reach out even during turbulent times in its history. This expensive project also exemplified a major step towards enhancing South-South cooperation, which had been initiated in 1955 at Bandung, Indonesia.
Last month, China once again delivered a symbolic structure in the form of a $200 million headquarters to house the African Union. Indeed, this superstructure has transformed the skyline of Addis Ababa, but more importantly, has added a crucial layer to the Sino-African discourse – helping connect Africa’s present to its past.
From stadiums in southern Africa through government offices and cultural buildings in western Africa to hydroelectric projects in the north of the continent, both apologists and critics of China’s engagements in Africa have found pillars for their arguments in these structures. Mostly, these passionate arguments concern issues around the ratio of Chinese to African labor at the sites of these projects, the nature of funding involved in a particular project, the quality of these structures and the motives behind Beijing’s seeming embrace of all things African. These are pertinent discussions to have, but should be well placed in the thicket of poignant messages that these strategically placed contributions (including the AU headquarters) by China send to stakeholders of the African continent. These gestures hold subtle insights and implications for understanding Sino-Africa relations, particularly for the West.
First, the versatility of China’s approach in engaging African countries is partly responsible for its surge as one of the major economic influences on the continent. From its earlier encounters with the continent at the 1955 Bandung Conference to present, China has played different roles in its relationship with African countries. Beijing has emerged from its largely ideologically driven encounters with African countries to become an economically driven pragmatist, which is largely manifested in its resource and market deals as well as its vivid role as “constructor-in-chief.”
In spite of the challenges that lurk in the margins of China’s resource deals and access to markets, which veritably range from language barriers to organized anti-Chinese protests and kidnapping of Chinese workers, Sino-Africa engagements have progressed well along these contours. In September 2011, the world expectantly watched as Zambian oppositionist Michael Sata won that country’s presidential elections riding on the wave of an anti-Chinese campaign. After the political dust settled, it became clear that the Chinese haven’t been spooked by Sata’s pre-election anti-Chinese rhetoric as Beijing’s interest in the copper industry even further deepened with companies such as Jinchuan Group and Non-Ferrous China Africa (NFCA) bolstering their investments in copper in Zambia.
Interestingly, Sata’s harsh anti-Chinese stance has given way to a more cooperative posture as he emphasizes the importance of foreign investments and cautioned all foreign investors (including the Chinese) to adhere to the labor laws, during his inaugural address. There’s certainly growing opposition to China’s increasing presence in Zambia and other African countries, but China and its investors find some solace in the support from the African elites and large portions of the population who are either content to have a committed partner-in-development or intrigued by the dedication of the Chinese in completing projects on schedule.
Second, with the construction of the African Union headquarters, Beijing is explicitly sending a clearsignal of their intention to engage the whole of Africa – all countries irrespective of politics, history, and geographical size and location. Again, at the Bandung Conference in 1955, China warmed up to six African countries – Egypt, Ethiopia, Gold Coast (now Ghana), Liberia, Libya, and Sudan. Today, China has some ties with almost all countries in Africa except for Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Swaziland, and Sao Tome and Principe, all of which recognize Taiwan.
One of the critiques of Sino-Africa relations has been the reference to China’s association with rogue states, enabled by its principle of non-conditionality. But this is an oversimplification of the issue. In a bid to effectively advance its causes in Africa, Beijing has drawn a fine balance between hushing its minimum pre-conditions, which include the acceptance of the one-China policy, and engaging African states perceived as rogue states like Zimbabwe and Sudan. Also, without the colonial baggage of some Western states, the Chinese have been fortunate in fostering their economic partnerships with African countries with no need for compunction. Beijing’s interests thus extend from the almost “unknown” platinum deposits in Zimbabwe to the known quantities of oil in Angola and Nigeria. Accessing these resources across Africa may for instance require technology in the arid region of Sudan or transportation from landlocked Zambia to the coast of Mozambique. This links us to China’s other well-known effort – helping to construct and reconstruct the infrastructure of many African countries. This effort is in essence a win-win for both parties in the Sino-African sphere. So whether it’s different politics or geography, it’s obvious that Beijing’s attempt to access resources, build markets, and enliven south-south solidarity in Africa is clearly uninhibited by factors that others might see as insurmountable.
Finally, China’s major trump card in competition with other emerging economic stalwarts from Asia and Latin America as well as the traditional European and American powers in Africa is its seemingly untiring capacity to change Africa’s infrastructural landscape. In a recent interview, an Angolan state minister compared the responses of China and the West to helping repair the country’s post-war infrastructure. Whereas the West came with a conditional offer, China offered immediate help with the needed infrastructure. This seems to be a recurring storyline around the African continent. There might be a whole debate about the ratio of African to Chinese workers at these construction sites as well as the “real or hidden costs” of these infrastructures, but there is at least one undeniable fact about Africa’s need for infrastructure, and that is its immediacy.
If there’s any plan for meaningful and sustainable economic development in African countries, infrastructure development must be a crucial part of it, and in this regard, Beijing is alreadyat work. From post-conflict countries like Angola, Sierra Leone and Liberia to transitional economies like Ghana and Uganda, China is assiduously laying kilometers of roads, fixing rail lines, and constructing hydroelectric dams. These may well come at some cost, but at least ones that will hopefully bring some marginal returns to the African people.
In effect, as we attempt to understand the recent surge of China in Africa, a look between the statistics and the anecdotes provides us with some basic glimpses of the path that Beijing is taking to embrace an Africa that is searching for new directions to economic development. For Western nations, China’s grand contributions like the recent African Union headquarters should be perceived as emblematic of a more nuanced and dynamic relationship between China and African countries that needs credible consideration rather than alarmism.
Richard Aidoo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Geography, Coastal Carolina University.