China’s Nontraditional Engagement in Africa

Note: This article is taken from a longer piece to be published on Africa Up Close, the Woodrow Wilson Centre’s Africa Program blog.

Non-Western donors represent a growing share of development financing, especially on the African continent. China’s place in this new type of development, sometimes referred to as South-South cooperation, has led to a lot of Western misconceptions of Chinese development investing. Plainly, Chinese investment on the African continent is profit-driven, relatively indifferent to poor governance, and growing quickly.

China seeks to take advantage of its participation South-South cooperation (SSC) in its trade and investment relations on the African continent to promote its economic and political interests. SSC has strong political and economic historical roots, such as the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War and the G77 countries, now totalling 134 members, in the United Nations. As China’s continuing identity as a member of the Global South wanes, it employs political promises of sovereign equality and non-interference, differing from Western trade, aid, and investment strategies of conditionality and selectivity. Whether these promises of non-interference are upheld is a different matter. Critics argue that China thus advances bilateral investment and trade in a moral vacuum – arguing against the ‘politicization of human rights’ and for a country’s right to choose their own ‘social systems’ – to normalize both its own downfalls in the areas of human rights and freedoms, as well as normalizing those practises in the countries wherein they are investing. It could also be argued that SSC narratives can be used to justify China’s prioritization of its own profit over the sustainable economic development of the country in which it is investing. Facing the possibility that this South-South narrative is fracturing as trade dynamics become more asymmetric, Beijing is confronted with the task of slowly replacing SSC narratives with other forms of incentivising similar bilateral non-interference, don’t-ask-don’t-tell investment practises, particularly in resource-rich African nations. The recipients of this soft power in countries whereby state sovereignty takes precedence of democratic practises are, unsurprisingly, the political and economic elite – resulting in an ‘elite circle courtship’. That being said, the Pew 2015 Global Indicator report cited general public opinion in the nine African countries included to be generally positive (all over 50% favourable). China’s historic difficulty with soft power have roots in the dominance of Western political norms, and placing its influence in governments, as opposed to civil society, the private sector, or thought leaders within the countries themselves.

As China’s identity as a ‘developer’ grows, African nations face the challenge of resisting exploitation from Beijing’s growing economic and geopolitical power. Despite high favourability ratings and narratives of Global South members helping one another, China’s place as an emerging economy can and has led to exploitation of Africa by Chinese businesses and state-run enterprises. Chinese ‘aid’, oftentimes bundled in trade or energy deals, is cringe-worthy to development experts in the West – it tends to be shoddy, employ Chinese rather than African workers, and unravels decades of our learning from failed development ventures (i.e., big infrastructure projects with little follow-up, etc.). A challenge in itself is implementing and enforcing policies such as requirements for foreign companies to transfer technological knowledge and strictly limiting foreign worker visas can create conditions wherein foreign companies must train and invest in local employees. On solution African nations can take on is the large task of modifying the South-South narrative to one of competition: ensuring that China remains simply ‘hard-nosed, profit-oriented investors’, rather than exploiters, and securing a long-term Chinese vision for their engagement on the African continent.

For Africa and the world, China’s growing engagement with the continent represents opportunity. For African nations, exploiting the comparative advantages of Western aid and Chinese investment can result in better development. China can bundle a proposal for oil or mineral enterprises with promises of aid or development projects, which the US and many other Western countries are banned from doing by the Development Advisory Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Furthermore, there are benefits from competition in business and investment between the West and Chinese investors. For example, Chinese ‘aid’ projects in regions that have seen Western development practises tend to be more substantial, such as railroads, as opposed to the construction of ‘huge, Olympic-style stadiums’ in regions less dominated by Western development styles. This growing engagement could also be seen as an opportunity for multilateral cooperation. With the China’s growing business interest comes a growing interest to see political stability and decreased security risks (i.e., business costs) in the countries they choose to invest in. The 2010’s have seen an increase in China’s contributions to fighting piracy and providing more support to UN missions in Africa. A prime example is China’s deployment of its first infantry battalion on a peacekeeping mission sent to support U.N. troops in South Sudan in late 2015.

To the apprehension of the West, and particularly the United States, China’s investment, trade, and aid with Africa continues to grow at an exponential rate. Though it is not uniform, and will no doubt change as international development norms shift, it is clear that China’s engagement with the continent does not fit into our traditional notions of ‘development’. The true impacts of these nontraditional engagements are still unfolding, and will no doubt be studied and scrutinised by the international development community well into the coming decade.

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