Africa: China’s Top Priority

Published on 19th December 2006

Africa is high on China’s diplomatic agenda. To date, four major events have thrust China-Africa relations into the media spotlight at home and abroad. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing kicked off a tour to Cape Verde, Senegal, Mali, Liberia, Nigeria and Libya on January 11. The Chinese Government released China’s African Policy, its first ever policy paper on Africa, on January 12. President Hu Jintao visited Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya April 24-29. Premier Wen Jiabao toured Egypt, Ghana, Republic of the Congo, Angola, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda June 17-24.

The series of events speak of the great importance the Chinese Government and leaders attach to China-Africa relations. At the same time, they are indicative of the fact that China-Africa relations have moved into an era of rapid development characterized by cooperation half a century after the establishment of bilateral diplomatic ties.

With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, Africa lost its much-valued geopolitical status. As a result, the attention the West devotes to Africa has been constantly on the decline. The continent is being marginalized in the diplomatic strategies of major Western countries. However, China is as always committed to developing relations with Africa. While cementing their economic and trade ties that began to expand in the 1980s, China sees great value in fostering an across-the-board relationship with Africa by forging closer political, cultural and educational links.  

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, established in 2000, provides an institutionalized platform for enhancing bilateral exchanges and cooperation. The China’s African Policy white paper and the suggestions raised by Hu on developing a new type of China-Africa strategic partnership during his Africa trip in April have not only clearly defined the nature of China-Africa relations but also charted the future course for the relations.

Renewed partnership

The new-type China-Africa strategic partnership features cooperation in the political, economic, cultural and security fields as well as in international affairs. In the political sphere, China and Africa have always been equal strategic partners that trust and support each other. China respects African countries’ right to choose the path of development independently.  

It supports these countries’ efforts to seek renewal through strengthening unity. It also takes an active part in the international efforts to promote peace and development in Africa. African countries, for their part, support the one-China policy and are opposed to Western countries’ interference in China’s internal affairs in the name of “human rights.”  

China has been ready to offer material and moral support to the African national liberation movement and their struggle against imperialism, colonialism and racism since the 1950s and 1960s. In recent years, it has efficiently participated in UN peacekeeping operations in Africa. To date, it has dispatched more than 3,000 peacekeepers on 12 UN missions in Africa. Today, over 850 Chinese service people are working on eight missions there.  

In 1971, the People’s Republic of China was restored to its lawful seat in the UN thanks to the support of African countries. With their support, China has defeated 11 consecutive anti-China motions tabled by Western countries in UN human rights sessions and prevented 14 proposals raised on the General Committee before the annual UN General Assembly for Taiwan to “rejoin or participate in the UN” from getting on the formal agenda since 1990. They also helped China frustrate Taiwan authorities’ attempts to access international organizations that only sovereign states are entitled to join.  

Economically, China and Africa are mutually complementary partners that benefit each other. Africa is a promising continent with rich natural and human resources and a huge market. However, having suffered from colonialism and regional conflicts, it is still mired in economic backwardness and lacks the funds, technology and experience for development. China has achieved a remarkable economic takeoff since the advent of economic reforms more than 20 years ago.  

Despite the progress, it faces new problems such as a severe energy shortage and escalating competition in its domestic market. Given these factors, the Chinese Government encourages Chinese firms to invest in Africa in various fields such as trade, agriculture, infrastructure construction, mining and tourism while offering an increasing amount of assistance with no political strings attached.  

To date, China has spent 44.4 billion yuan assisting African countries with over 800 projects, including textile factories, hydropower stations, stadiums, hospitals and schools. At present, trade between China and Africa is undergoing rapid growth. The bilateral trade volume rose from $12.11 million in the 1950s to $10.5 billion in 2000 and $29.4 billion in 2004. In recent years in particular, China has increased imports from African countries and thus maintained a trade deficit with them, enabling these countries to earn a large amount of foreign exchange.  

In an effort to facilitate the country’s access to African goods, China exempted the tariffs on 190 categories of goods from 29 least developed African countries. Under this policy, these countries’ exports of such goods to China more than doubled last year. In 2005, Africa posted a trade surplus of $2.4 billion with China. In addition, China canceled 156 debts owed by 31 heavily indebted African countries totaling 10.5 billion yuan.  

In recent years, Chinese firms have redoubled their efforts to penetrate the African market. To date, direct Chinese investment in Africa has reached $1.25 billion. Over 800 companies are currently operating in Africa, engaged in trade, manufacturing, natural resource exploitation, transportation, agriculture and agricultural processing. Chinese companies have helped create employment opportunities in African countries, increase their tax revenues, introduce practical technologies to these countries, enhance the competence of local workers and improve their productivity. 

By He Wenping
Director, Division of African Studies of the Institute of West Asian and African Studies Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The article was published in Beijing Review, Vol.49, No.44, pp.14-17, Nov.2, 2006

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