Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Africa and China: Sorry Hillary, Africa Knows Who Its “Responsible Partners Are”

Edson Charikinya explores the geostrategic context of U.S. secretary of state Hilary Clinton’s 11-day visit to Africa. He opines on how increasingly America finds itself in the cold in Africa. America has “pushed” for democracy on the continent, though it has also been found to be double-faced when political expediency demands it over its higher principles. China, however, has no scruples, and African governments are much keener on dealing with the new kid on the block with more money than Crassus.

The U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s current 11-day tour of Africa comes on the backdrop of the recently concluded Afro-China summit where China pledged 20 billion USD in developmental aid to Africa. In the past decade alone China has extended more loans to sub-Saharan Africa than the World Bank. It has also surpassed America as the continent’s major trading partner. Hillary Clinton, speaking in Senegal as part of the first leg of her trip, challenged African leaders to embrace democracy and partnerships with “responsible foreign powers”. This was seen as a veiled attack on China’s relationship with Africa. Should Africans take hid of her warning and re-evaluate their growing relationship with China or is this an attempt by America to re-assert its influence on the continent?

America’s interest in sub-Saharan Africa has focused mainly on bringing about good governance and political stability on the continent. This approach is motivated mainly by America’s war on terror rather than America’s need to secure natural resources for its economy. Over the years America has attempted to use developmental aid as a tool to pressure African governments to reform their political systems. With the emergence of China this tool is becoming less potent as resource rich sub-Saharan African countries with poor human rights records can now receive developmental loans from China in exchange for their resources.

African officials in attendance at the 5th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation
Chinese and African leaders discuss measures to deepen ties. Beijing, China | July 19th, 2012
China is aggressively seeking long term guaranteed supplies of natural resources from Africa and is willing to do business with any sub-Saharan African government. This has led to fears that China’s developmental aid to Africa will result in more African governments resisting democratic reforms, which America views as necessary in bringing about stability and rooting out terrorism on the continent. China has refused to tell African governments how to run their countries, or to make its investments dependent on government (transparency) reform. It is this approach that Clinton views as being irresponsible.

Africa faces a number of developmental challenges, in order to overcome these challenges sub-Saharan Africa needs both China and America’s assistance.  The fundamental issue at the root of sub-Sahara Africa’s problems is lack of good governance. Some of the causes of poor governance relate to Africa’s colonial legacy that did little to develop strong democratic institutions. Half a century later, after most of Africa’s nations gained independence, things are slowly changing. African states are increasingly becoming more confident in their ability to govern and choose their own development partners. It is with this new found confidence that Africa has embraced partnership with China despite criticism from Washington and the human rights (NGO) community, which has generally opposed this partnership.

Tanzania, Ghana, Zambia and Ghana are amongst a long list of countries that have benefited significantly from Afro-Chinese partnership. These countries are currently among the world's 10 fastest-growing economies. This has led to the speculation that sub-Saharan Africa as the next frontier for economic growth. While addressing business leaders in South Africa during her visit Hillary Clinton acknowledged Africa’s “enormous economic growth” in the face of global economic challenges.  A considerable fraction of this economic growth she was praised is directly comes from Afro-Sino partnerships.

Africa has benefited greatly from partnering with China. China has brought much-needed capital investment to a continent that has suffered from years of capital flight. Chinese investments on the continent have extended to transport, education and health infrastructure. China has offered over 20,000 scholarships to African government officials for training in China. This will aid in human skills capacity development. China has also given Africa access to low-cost consumer goods. The emergence of a strong China as an alternative destination for Africa’s resources has also resulted in African countries having greater bargaining power, thus Africa has been getting the best value for its resources in the commodity market.

Through aggressive deal-making, China has dramatically increased its economic footprint in Africa
(Image/graphic via Fast Company)

The worrying trend however has been that the bulk of sub-Saharan Africa’s exports to China have largely been unprocessed raw materials. The current growth model which is largely based on resource extraction and the export of raw materials is unsustainable and greatly favours China. In order to make current economic gains on the continent permanent there should be a new drive towards value addition to Africa’s resources (value-added products from African raw materials made in Africa). This should be the next step in Africa’s economic growth path.  Sub-Saharan African leaders should seek to negotiate better trade agreements that encourage greater investment in Africa’s raw material processing industries.

Though, as African leaders pursue greater economic growth, the continent’s democracy and human rights issues – on which it is thoroughly lacking – should not be put off Africa’s development agenda.  China represents a great opportunity for Africa as well as a geostrategic challenge to America. Instead of discouraging Africa’s partnership with China, America should find other innovative ways of encouraging African leaders to pursue political reforms as part of their development plan.

Edson Charikinya is a Zimbabwean born Chemical Engineer based in South Africa. He is the founder and Operations Director of Innovartis Technology Systems, a Pan-African technology group ​​delivering technology solutions and services to African communities and small-to-medium sized enterprises. He holds an MSc in Chemical Engineering and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Stellenbosch.

Your comments and feedback are much appreciated. To engage in further discussion with the editors and contributors of the blog on this topic and other related topics, follow us on twitter @SEADiaspora and/or leave a comment below.