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 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.
China-Africa Summit: A New Milestone
Africa is high on China’s diplomatic agenda in recent years. Along with the release of the very first White Paper on China’s Africa Policy in January 2006, a number of high-level official visits to Africa have been done by President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, other cabinet members and the members of the Political Bureau.
A new milestone in the history of China-Africa relations was created when African leaders gathered in Beijing for the First Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and its Third Ministerial Conference in early November 2006. In fact, the year 2006 marked the ‘Year of Africa’ in China’s diplomacy. In the same year, China became Africa’s third largest trading partner after the United States and France. Africa is one of China’s major overseas origins for strategic resources, investment opportunities and greater product markets.
The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, established in 2000, provides an institutionalized platform for enhancing bilateral exchanges and cooperation. Over the last three FOCAC meetings in 2000, 2003 and 2006, China has offered a series of incentives to boost China-Africa ties. They include: debt write-off, tariff-free for some African commodities exporting to China as well as establishing and increasing the Fund for African Human Resources Development.
At the opening ceremony of China-Africa Summit in November 2006, President Hu Jintao announced China’s eight-point proposal to support African development. China proposed to
• double the 2006 level of assistance to Africa by 2009
• provide $US 5 billion in preferential loans and credits within the next three years
• provide $US 5 billion to support Chinese companies to invest in Africa
• construct a conference center for African Union
• cancel debt owed by the heavily indebted poor countries
• increase zero-tariff export items to China from 190 to over 440 from the least developed countries
• Set up three to five Sino-African trade and economic zones
• Send 100 Chinese experts to Africa and train 15,000 African professionals in areas of agriculture, health, education, science and technology; build 100 rural schools and 30 anti-malaria centres.
These measures not only show that China cares about Africa but they are also easier to implement and fulfill than generally stated goals. The experience and practice of FOCAC over the past seven years indicates that it is not an empty-talk club. It is an important platform and effective mechanism for conducting collective dialogue between China and African nations and exchanges in governance, promoting mutual trust and carrying out pragmatic cooperation. During the Summit, the Chinese and African leaders have also reached consensus on bringing about a new type of China-Africa strategic partnership.
The 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 the right of African countries to choose their path of development independently. It supports these countries’ efforts to seek renewal through strengthening unity and takes an active part in the international efforts to promote peace and development in them. 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 offered material and moral support to the African national liberation movements in 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.
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. Africa 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 30 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 RMB 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 $70 billion in 2007. 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 in 2003. Under this policy, these countries’ exports 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 RMB.
Chinese firms have redoubled their efforts to penetrate the African market. Until the end of 2006, all kinds of Chinese investment in Africa had reached $11.7 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.
On the cultural front, China and Africa should become equal partners that jointly promote the prosperity and progress of human civilization. China and Africa are both origins of human civilization, boasting brilliant cultural heritages. African culture has a lot in common with Chinese culture. For example, both value community spirit and the tradition of yielding personal benefits to the interests of the community. Given these common values, China and Africa are expected to further strengthen their cultural linkages with a view to building a harmonious world where different civilizations coexist in the spirit of tolerance and equality while learning from each other. Cultural exchange is not only limited to exchanging students and teachers, and holding arts performances and exhibitions. Chinese medical teams and other flourishing programs such as China’s training of African workers and the exchange of experiences in pursuing development are also part of the China-Africa cultural exchange.
In the field of security, China and Africa should enhance exchanges and consultation, thus raising the awareness of collective security in the international community, promoting a security concept that features mutual trust, benefit, equality and cooperation. The future of China-African cooperation also holds significant relevance in non-traditional security field, such as preventing major infectious diseases, including bird flu, and addressing cross-border crimes. The new impulse in China-Africa relations can thus be felt on many fronts. This multi-dimensional approach to strengthening relations is markedly different from that which Africa has managed with its traditional development partners. With both sides observing that this relationship can only be a win-win situation, the future for China-Africa relations is definitely moving into an era of rapid development.