China, the EU and the new race for Africa

In Luanda, the capital of Angola, Chinese construction workers are relentlessly putting up another skyscraper, one of many which have been popping up like mushrooms all over the city over the past few years. Back in 2002, this was a barren, impoverished place, ravaged by decades of civil war. Now it is the centre of one of the fastest growing economies on the planet, with new infrastructure and construction projects rapidly transforming the face of the country. The driving force behind this change: China. The East Asian giant is pumping billions of dollars worth of aid and investment, largely in exchange for resource-deals, most importantly access to Angola’s vast supplies of oil.

Yet Angola is not the only African country to benefit from China’s resurgence onto the global scene. All across the continent new roads, railways, factories and mines are being built on an unprecedented scale, financed by Chinese investments, and accompanied by a huge exodus of Chinese workers and businessmen. The Chinese claim this is part of a new path to development, based on an equal partnership. Yet many are concerned about the implications of this approach, especially for the promotion of democracy and human rights in Africa.

In Europe especially, there is growing concern about China’s no-strings policy to aid, symbolised potently by its support for the Sudanese government which stands accused of genocide in Darfur. Whereas the European Commission has added political conditions such as respect for human rights and democracy to its aid and trade agreements with African countries, many people feel that this policy is being undermined as repressive regimes can increasingly look to ‘rogue-donor’ China for assistance.

On top of this, the financial crisis has put into question the dominance of Western liberal democracy, and African elites are beginning to look instead to the Chinese model which combines capitalism with a strong autocratic state. Many in the West fear any progress towards greater democracy and human rights throughout Africa is being put at risk by China’s growing presence, which has promoted an alternate, non-democratic vision of development.

Others accuse China of being interested only in milking Africa’s resources, quenching its inexorable thirst for raw materials to sustain its economic boom. China’s actions are seen as evidence that it is acting as a neo-colonialist power, intent on exploiting its African partners but with no concern for their long-term future or for local and environmental concerns.

However, despite these concerns we need to be careful before assuming that China’s rise is necessarily a ‘bad thing’ for Africa. In particular, we need to remember that the last sixty years of Western aid policy has done little to dent the chronic poverty which permeates the continent. In contrast, in just three decades China has lifted 400 million of its own people out of poverty, representing the biggest economic boom the world has ever seen. Perhaps it can help to recreate this process in Africa too.

At the same time, accusations of neo-colonialism ring a little hollow when one considers Europe’s own role in Africa. Aside from the shameless exploitation associated with colonial times, we currently dump millions of tonnes of toxic waste across the continent, and also continue to subsidise our agricultural produce to the detriment of African farmers. We should therefore be careful to avoid charges of hypocrisy before rushing to judgement.

Undeniably,China’s growing presence in Africa is also driven by selfish motives. It needs new supplies of vital resources, as well as growing markets for its goods. However, unlike its European colonial predecessors, the Chinese diaspora is not backed up by the barrel of a gun. It is based on trade and cooperation, and so requires the consent of local governments and companies. We shouldn’t then fall into the trap of claiming to know what is best for Africans, whilst not letting them decide for themselves.

However, it is also important to recognise that despite the huge economic gains, there have also been important social costs associated with China’s growing presence. Shoddily constructed buildings have collapsed, protesting African workers at a mine were shot at by its Chinese owners, and many local traders are being undercut by cheap Chinese imports. Growing discontent and widespread anti-Chinese sentiment have shown how African citizens on the street do not always share the optimism of their political leaders.

There are then important shortcomings to the Chinese approach, despite its impressive success in actually getting things done. Significantly, the rush to build economic infrastructure has not been accompanied by adequate oversight or the building of political institutions required to resolve social conflicts. In this respect, there is potential for the EU and China to play complimentary roles. For example in Angola, the European External Action Service is funding a project aiming to promote good governance, enhance the provision of public services and improve the human rights situation. This is happening alongside the massive Chinese investment into the economy.

Another area in which the EU has significant expertise is in the promotion of regional trade; it is after all the world’s most successful single market. Trade deals between Africa and China have been based on the export of natural resources, with little promotion of intra-African trade. In contrast several EU-sponsored projects have aimed to promote regional trading blocs throughout Africa. These are now being complemented by the huge Chinese-built motorways and railways which are beginning to link up the continent.

Perhaps then it is time we stopped viewing China as a threat to Europe’s policy towards Africa, and instead as a potential partner. Whereas China has experience in rapid economic transformation and in building huge infrastructure projects, in Europe we have expertise in institution-building and the creation of a regional single market. This means we potentially have a lot to learn from each-other. Instead of considering our approaches to development in Africa as mutually exclusive, we should look at how they could be mutually reinforcing. In the end though, we need to encourage a dialogue which includes everyone, most importantly African citizens themselves.

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