Laetitia Tran Ngoc
In late January, the French paper Le Monde reported that China had been secretly transferring data from the headquarters of the African Union (AU), a building it has built and financed as a gift to African nations, to servers in Shanghai. The revelation was quickly denied by Chinese officials, while African leaders reacted rather coolly. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who recently assumed the AU chairmanship, said he had no knowledge of the Chinese government’s surveillance.
By contrast, most European media that shared the news promptly presented the alleged spying as further proof of China’s treacherous intentions toward Africa. This reaction is part of an old narrative of a growing Chinese threat in Africa, based on fundamental misconceptions about the relationship between China and Africa.
Many in Western countries believe that China is only making significant investments in Africa to procure raw materials, while supporting authoritarian regimes and using its financial and political power to promote China’s agenda. In May, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani warned in an interview that Africa “risks becoming a Chinese colony, but the Chinese need only natural resources, they’re not interested in stability.” Beware of China’s poisonous gifts and generosity, repeats the EU like a mantra.
But such views do not even come close to reality on the ground, and evidence suggests that Beijing’s African foreign policy is actually very normal. China has been active in Africa for decades; it just took a while for the EU to notice it. From the 1960s onwards, China started providing development aid and technical assistance to African nations. Since the 1980s, China’s activities in Africa have a three-pronged strategy: expanding into new markets, obtaining new resources to sustain its rapid growth and making sure that African countries recognize Beijing instead of Taiwan.
Recent studies have also shown that we tend to overestimate Chinese aid and financing and that the bargaining power of traditional donors is not declining across Africa because of the increasing presence of China.
In other words, China is not the voracious new player hungry for natural resources sometimes described in the media, but rather a rational actor that relies on African partners for its prosperity. Regarding the spying itself, Le Monde noted that China is not alone in spying on the AU as British and French intelligence services had previously targeted it. Let’s not forget that the US has been spying on its allies for years, while Germany had occasionally done the same to France, the European Commission and the US. Even if the alleged spying activities were proven right, this would just confirm the status of China as a regular actor on the global stage.
It would also be wrong to understand Africa’s embrace of China as the result of the whim of a handful of dictators or active rejection of traditional donors. The renewal of the Chinese presence in Africa coincided with Europe’s disinvestment from the continent. Whereas the foreign policies of the EU had been focusing on its former colonies since the 1950s, Africa lost its strategic importance after the end of the Cold War.
Development funding for agriculture fell to only 4 percent, while development aid for manufacturing and infrastructure dropped to historic lows. All this took place while new generations of leaders emerged in Africa and economic development became a political priority in several countries. At the turn of the 21st century, the continent experienced an economic revival and started aiming at achieving a structural transformation of their economies, and Chinese stepped up to fill the vacuum.
In countries like Ethiopia, China is building railways, opening factories and training personnel. Chinese managers increasingly implement technical skills-training programs for their African workers. Between 2004 and 2009, China-Africa trade grew at an annual rate of over 40 percent and Chinese exports to Africa have grown steadily, reaching about $103 billion in 2015.
All this is not the result of an “Africa obsession” on the part of China, as Beijing has similarly become the largest trading partner of several countries in Latin America and across Central and Southeast Asia. Finally, it is likely that China’s audacity to invest in Africa when it was still described as a “hopeless continent” played some part in the arrival of new actors, with Turkish, Indian and Saudi investments quickly rising on the continent.
Because of their imaginary competition with China, Westerners and Europe in particular, felt dispossessed of their historical backyard. Coverage like that of Le Monde is further proof of Europe’s discomfort and difficulty to find its place in the new world dynamics. No one is fooled that investments and better infrastructure alone will be enough to solve Africa’s old woes of bad governance, instability and corruption. But there is nothing intrinsically dangerous in China’s push toward Africa. China is the ultimate pragmatic power, and Africans understand that it is neither a savior nor a conqueror. It is time for Europe to come to the same conclusion.
— Courtesy: GT
[The author is a research officer with the Ethiopian Embassy in Belgium. firstname.lastname@example.org].
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Laetitia Tran Ngoc