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China & Africa

Dr. Elshafie Khidir Saeid

Contrary to the assertion by Western officials & media that China’s interest in Africa is recent and driven mainly by its ever-increasing demand for oil and other natural resources, the historical facts confirm that the Sino-African relation has been established a long time ago. However, it is not incorrect to say that China is a long-established diplomatic partner, while it is also a relatively new investor in Africa’s development and market. Today, China is a major donor of aid to Africa, and its interests on the continent encompass not only natural resources but also issues of development in its broader sense: trade, security, diplomacy, and soft power. China’s role in Africa defies conventional stereotypes and punchy news headlines.

Its principle of non-interference and friendly relations is an altogether new and positive model for external engagement with Africa. Drawing clear distinctions between the European colonial past and Western policies that are based on the exploitation of the continent’s natural & human resources, and also based on paternalistic interference in Africa political affairs, China promotes its presence in Africa as based on equality, mutual respect, and mutual benefit.

A review of China’s record of engagement in Africa over the past 50 years will yield impressive achievements as well as raise several questions. China has indeed contributed often silently and formidably to fill the resource gaps in civic and military sectors of African countries at times when neither Cold War alliances nor indigenous resources could be found to address crucial needs. In this regard, the image of China’s support to Africa over the past decades is dominated by very useful grants and loans included infrastructure projects (roads, bridges, railways, electric power generation, irrigation canals, housing, etc.), equipment supply for production and service sectors (health, agriculture, engineering, construction, etc.), commodity supply (medicines, agricultural products, and inputs, etc.) as well as limited educational and professional development opportunities.

Over the past decade or two, China added trade, commercial investment, natural resource extraction, and technological collaboration (in the ITC sector) as new dimensions to its already considerable direct grant/loan support involving infrastructure, equipment, and commodity support, as mentioned above.

However, the African perception of this constructive engagement of China in the continent unleashes a mix of approval by the majority, but also apathy, and even contempt by the minority of the Africans. I think this is expected in a continent that is by no means a homogenous unit, being composed of 54 different countries and more than a billion people. This heterogeneous picture can explain the existence of substantial differences between the varied security challenges in the continent.

It is the specific characteristics of these different contexts that determine what impact China has had. Recognizing this, there is scope for China to become more supportive of African peace and security. In some cases, most pressingly with regards to military cooperation & arms trade, policies could and should be improved. In other cases, such as its economic engagement, policies could be made more sensitive to conflict risks. In other areas, such as peacekeeping, China’s successful contributions should be built upon.

Generally speaking, the Africans are welcoming China’s heavy emphasis on government-to-government contracts with few, if any, strings attached. They praise China’s contributions to their nations’ infrastructure, highlighting visible improvements to the expanded economic activity, job creation for local workers, and tangible improvements to roads, rails, bridges, and other transportation networks, all things that benefit ordinary citizens, albeit indirectly.

On the other hand, some segments of the African society criticize Chinese enterprises for their poor labor conditions, unsustainable environmental practices, bad goods qualities, and job displacement.

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