A critical evaluation of the evolving relationship between Africa, a continent with 1.34 billion people, and China – the world’s most populous country – which has a population of 1.39 billion, is essential to complete the story of the external powers’ engagement in Africa. It is also of considerable relevance to our understanding the India-Africa partnership, the principal theme of this book.
George Yu observed in 1968 that “studying China in Africa is much like pursuing a dragon in the bush. The dragon is imposing but the bush is dense.” China’s progressively strengthening position in Africa, especially in the past two decades, posed a serious challenge, above all, to Africa’s traditional partners – the EU, U.S. and Japan, compelling them to readjust their policies. At the same time, it also created a powerful incentive to other emerging powers to step up their endeavours to expand cooperation with the continent. In short, ‘Chinafrica’ is a branch of the study of International Relations (IR) that carries connotations transcending the dynamics between the two parties – Africa and China.
The past seven decades since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949 offer a fascinating story of how the Africa-China relationship underwent both visible and subtle changes in character and scope. There was a time when the Communist China was not even recognised by many African governments and when the former’s involvement with the continent was quite negligible. In contrast, at the present stage of history Africa’s external relations cannot be appreciated without devoting ample space and time to the role played by China in Africa’s politics, economy, social sectors and world view.
Two phases in the trajectory of the relationship seem to be clearly marked: a) the period from 1949 to 1999, and b) the era of the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) from 2000 to the present day.
It may be noted that during the first period, Mao Zedong’s China followed an ideological approach towards Africa with a focus largely on political issues, while under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership from 1978 to 1997, the emphasis shifted to economic cooperation. Another point to note is that the 1990s was the time when China, recognising that major changes were afoot in Africa and the needs of its own economy, accelerated its diplomatic drive to woo African countries. This special endeavour laid the foundations of strategic upgrading of the relationship. Consequently, impressive achievements were secured in the FOCAC era.
I caught many glimpses of China’s rising position and sharpening image in Africa during the FOCAC era, while serving as India’s high commissioner in South Africa during 2006–09. On 7 February 2007, I was in the large audience at the University of Pretoria to listen to President Hu Jintao who was visiting Africa as part of an eight-nation tour. “China is the biggest developing country and Africa is the continent with the largest number of developing countries,” he stated. When towards the end of the speech, he announced that the Chinese government would invite 500 African youths, including university students, to visit China, his young listeners broke into a long applause.
Writing in April 2014, Yun Sun pointed to the “conflicts between Beijing’s political agenda and its economic goals in Africa” but projected that “China’s engagement with Africa was expected to grow.” It did – in an impressive manner. Advocates of the FOCAC argue, with much conviction, that the two sides crafted the best platform to develop, diversify and manage this relationship. According to two of them – Zeng Aiping and Shu Zhan – China-Africa relations “have entered the best period in history.” They noted that “the forum’s development is faced with more opportunities than challenges.” The challenges identified by them and other scholars relate to the fundamental asymmetric character of this relationship.
Delving a little deeper into the last conference – the FOCAC summit in Beijing in September 2018 – should be instructive. Leaders of only six African countries did not show up. Leaders of three countries –The Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe and Burkina Faso – attended the conference for the first time, switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC. This left eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) as the only African nation recognising Taiwan. “The near-universal attendance is a feather in China’s cap,” wrote Shannon Tiezzi. The declaration of the summit, reflecting the common perspective of all participants, presented China and Africa as “a community with a shared future.” They committed themselves to further enrich “the comprehensive strategic and cooperation partnership,” covering all possible sectors of mutual benefit. The Beijing Declaration showed a deft weaving of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the signature project of President Xi Jinping, into the China-Africa engagement. It was agreed to create strong synergy between the BRI, Agenda 2063 of the African Union and the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development of the UN. At this summit, China announced the plan to host the second BRI Forum for International Cooperation in 2019, expecting fully that Africa would be a major and active participant.
Instead of demonising China’s Africa policy and its implementation, the competing nations need to focus on analysing it objectively and devising a more attractive policy model for themselves. Whether they recognise it or not, a serious competition is underway. It will become fiercer in the future. Finally, they should also take into account that Africa needs and welcomes a multiplicity of options for partnerships. Explaining the African reaction, Beatrice Marshall observed: “…we know Chinese investment in Africa is definitely a welcome gesture that originates from China’s own experience and adapts to Africa’s realities.” This charitable view stands at some distance away from a long-term strategic perspective on China’s motivations and the risks involved in Africa’s dependency.
This is where the reality of Africa’s ‘agency’ comes in: African nations and their elites should be in the best position to assess Africa’s needs as well as the nature of external partnerships on offer and their respective merits and demerits. Right choices will benefit their people, while wrong decisions will hurt them. Ultimately African leaders will be accountable.
Bhatia, Rajiv, India-Africa Relations: Changing Horizons, Routledge, 2022.
This excerpt was first published in Hindustan Times.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former high commissioner to South Africa, Lesotho and Kenya.