Features | Economy | Politics

China’s ‘Image’ Problem in Africa

Beijing’s policy of “non intervention” was championed by African leaders looking for economic growth without political preconditions. As Africa’s politics change, is the policy obsolete?

By Richard Aidoo for

Since the 1950s, China has effectively used the doctrine of non-interference to guide its foreign policy agenda in the developing world. In its recent economic and diplomatic engagements in Africa, the policy has come under intense scrutiny and censure as Beijing attempts to strategically navigate the contours of resource acquisition alongside south-south solidarity with its African counterparts. The West has persistently criticized China for allegedly using non-interference opportunistically to ensure an uninterrupted flow of vital resources and to continue arms sales to rogue regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe. With a recent wave of Chinese deportations from some African countries and the spotting of Chinese disaffection among sections of African populations, will Beijing respond by stepping up the rhetoric on non-interference or de-emphasizing this as foreign policy platform in Africa?

The policy of non-interference embedded in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence largely precludes Chinese leaders from intervening in the internal affairs of another country. This respect for the sanctity of sovereignty has been used by Beijing as a pivot for its international political actions or inactions, which often call for tough and tricky choices within the international community. From the abstention from UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which gave the green light for the “no-fly zone” that ended Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, to its almost inert role in Sudan, China has been careful (sometimes too careful) with its colossal diplomatic footprint in Africa.

Fortunately for Beijing, the past decade has been a relative honeymoon as African leaders have grown impatient with Washington’s neoliberal agenda, leading them to readily embrace another option – a promise of economic growth with limited to no political preconditions. Undoubtedly, the policy of non-interference is more popularly among the leadership than the ordinary citizens as the policy does not force leaders to accept democratic standards in order to partner with China. Yet, in recent months China has seen a rise in its deportations from the continent, as well as rising anti-Chinese sentiment among certain segments of African populations. In light of this, Chinese leaders may need to assess whether Beijing is already too deeply domestically involved in Africa to continue its non-interference policy, or, conversely, if this policy should be continued in an effort to avoid being labeled as a “colonializer” and “resource exploiter.”

As China reaches into the continent and continues to strike tantalizing resource deals and open up markets for Chinese goods, upholding the policy of non-interference becomes increasingly difficult to sustain. In most of its engagements with African states, Beijing is primarily concerned with continued access to Africa’s strategic resources. These include its heavy investments in the Angolan and Sudanese oil industries; substantial interest in Zambian copper and even its recent attempt to secure some shares from new oil finds in Ghana and Uganda. Involvement in such strategic sectors raises the stakes for competition and meddling as both internal and external interests intersect in the acquisition and development of such resources. In 2010, for example, there reports that the state-owned Chinese international oil company, CNOOC, forcefully lobbied the Ghanaian government to wrestle the $4 billion oil shares on sale by Kosmos Energy from ExxonMobil. With such competitive resource deals comes the increasing lure to continuously flirt with the powerful domestic actors to ensure the uninterrupted access to these strategic resources whiles minimizing local discontent. This dilemma will continue to challenge non-interference as a policy that sets Beijing apart from the West in Africa.

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The Arab Spring and other political movements that have swept through parts of the region have also strained China’s non-interference policy. Saddled with the policy of non-interference, Beijing’s response to this unexpected political movement is being closely monitored by its critics. Some of China’s strategic responses during the Arab Spring, such as its decision to meet with Libyan opposition forces in Qatar before the demise of Muammar Gaddafi, have revealed the elasticity of non-interference, as Beijing positioned itself to be a relevant power in the aftermath of the political and social turbulence. In this case and others, China arguably broke with the tenets of non-interference for the sake of a “resourceful” posterity. Then again, this is possible given that after six decades, the policy of non-interference is still amorphously defined, hence mostly perceived as a doctrine that characterizes Beijing’s passivity in a rather complex international system where states must often make hard choices. The festering conflict between Sudan and newborn South Sudan has largely progressed with persistent calls for China to act selflessly by playing the role of responsible global power instead of a resource driven global power grab. After a succession of such aloofness under the pretext of non-interference, the ultimate question becomes how long Beijing will standby diplomatically unscathed as domestic conflicts endanger its vital economic interests in Africa?

As Beijing is continuously prodded to distinguish its policies and engagements from that of the West in Africa, “image” is of paramount importance. For China, keeping a carefully managed image in Africa will be critical to undercutting the arguments of neo-colonialism that are levied by its critics. The policy of non-interference has always been Beijing’s welcome answer to queries about its self-centered policy and economic gains in Africa. As the initial honeymoon is far spent with multitudes of Chinese businesses descending onto African soil, sections of African populations disagree with the image of China as a non-meddling altruistic partner; hence the display of recent anti-Chinese sentiments in places like Zambia and Sudan, and the increasing deportation of Chinese from countries like Angola, Ghana and Nigeria. To deal with these growing pains in Sino-African relations, and chart a different path from that of the West in Africa, Beijing has an inconceivable task of being both a responsible power that commends and chastises as well as a respectful partner that brandishes the policy of “no domestic interference.” In maintaining this precarious balance, non-interference becomes a mirage since an increase in Chinese economic investments might come with temptations to help shape and sustain the requisite business environment needed for these investments to flourish.

Finally, Beijing is currently dealing with a new generation of African leadership that is under pressure to embrace liberal democratic ideals and pragmatic economic agenda. Even though persistently described as a façade by the West, non-interference has variedly won the hearts of some African leaders who perceived it as a much-needed break from the quid pro quo relations with the West.

However, with the new generation of leadership, China faces a quandary. In many African countries, the “strongmen” who most vigorously embraced China—including Meles Zenawi, Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Abdoulaye Wade–  are no longer in office. In their stead are elected leaders accountable to their people or leaders that have been forewarned by the violent or sudden demise of their predecessors. Beijing will have to deal with this new generation of African leadership who might want a clean break from the past and hence may approach China and its non-interference policy with caution.

Ultimately, with its almost addictive quest for resources and markets, the motives behind Beijing’s diplomatic non-interference in Africa will be debated for a while. Nonetheless, non-interference may represent a double-edged strategy that either sets China’s presence in Africa apart from past colonial forces of the West or serves as an albatross that impinges on the conscience of China’s peaceful rise.  To achieve the former, Beijing will have to contextualize this policy in Africa taking into account the changing politics on the continent.

Richard Aidoo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Geography, Coastal Carolina University.