Bottlenecks in China-Africa Relations

Published on 12th May 2008

Even though Sino-African relations have enjoyed sound and rapid development, it is imperative that we pay great attention to the new problems and challenges facing the relationship.

Energy development and “delivering benefit to the people”

With China’s energy exploitation in Africa, China is conducting energy diplomacy in Africa; China’s energy plunder in Africa is a type of ‘neo-colonialism;  China’s attention toward Africa is based on its demand for oil and other strategic raw materials; having become the second largest oil consumer (after the United States) Africa is rapidly becoming China’s important supply base of oil; and that China’s rapid economic development and its relative lack of domestic resources has made it pay constant attention to other production bases of oil and raw materials. Although these arguments are clearly one-sided and bear the imprint of   the Cold War mentality, they  remind us indirectly that we should avoid following the old path of the Western colonialist countries while exploring energy in Africa.

China for example, has put a great deal of investment in oil exploration in Sudan. In a conference in South Africa at the end of 2005 where I  met  several Sudanese in the religious and political circles, I could feel that they had some reservations and dissatisfaction about the amount of benefit they got from the China-Sudan oil cooperation. Although a peace agreement has been signed between the north and the south in Sudan, there are still multiple contradictions and widespread social confrontation.

Although China has signed an agreement on oil exploitation with the Sudanese government in the north, the oil fields are in the southern part of the country, leaving Chinese oil companies in between the two sides and easy media targets. The south often complains that land acquisition for exploring oil fields led to displacement of people who have not been provided with employment. A very influential Christian bishop in the Upper Nile Province in Sudan has always been quite friendly towards China, but on many public occasions, he has called on Chinese oil companies to pay more attention to environmental protection in southern Sudan, networking with the local people, and improving of the living standards of the local people.

Due to historical reasons, the rights to oil exploitation in African countries lie in the hands of France, the UK, Italy, the US and other former Western colonial powers. Since the Western oil companies have been concerned with their own economic interests but neglected environmental protection and the local peoples’ ability to develop their economy, the constant flow of “oil dollars” has only filled the pockets of Western oil companies and some corrupt African officials. The unequal distribution of the “black gold” wealth and resources has led to internal conflicts  in African countries. Nigeria, for example, the largest oil producer with a daily output of 2.5 million barrels of crude oil, is facing prolonged oil and gas shortage due to its poor ability of oil refining and has to rely on large amount of gasoline import. In the Niger Delta, due to lack of access to oil wealth, the local people often take great risks to steal oil from pipelines or to kidnap foreigners.

Therefore, based on traditional friendship and the fact that both China and many African states are developing countries, African countries place high hopes on China. They hope that in exploring oil markets in Africa, China will abide by the principle of win-win cooperation, pay more attention to environmental protection and the improvement of people’s living standards in the local area and help oil producing countries in Africa to improve economic development.

Trade frictions and conflicts of economic interests

Some African scholars hold that China’s economic development constitutes both tempting opportunities and terrible threats to Africa. Take textile trade for example. The sustained increase of exports from China to the US and the EU, the two largest markets for textile products, and the great increase of Chinese products to African countries where textile and apparel is the pillar industry has, to a certain extent, eroded the international market share of these countries, thus affecting the development of the textile industry in the local area and leading to bankruptcies and unemployment. Indeed, with the ever expanding economic and trade cooperation between China and Africa, conflict in trade and investment between the two sides are becoming more prominent. China’s competitive advantage in labor cost and resources has rendered the textile and light industries in some African countries into a helpless position. In South Africa, a pair of pants made in China only costs $ 1 which includes long-distance transportation charge and customs, while the same product locally produced costs ten times as much.

The influx of Chinese commodities such as textile products, clothes, shoes, and motorbikes objectively affected the development of the manufacturing industry in Africa. The competition between the same type of products from China and Africa also weakens the export capability of African countries, indirectly undermining relevant industries in Africa as well the international community’s enthusiasm of making direct investment in Africa. According to statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, since the founding of the World Trade Organization, the total number of cases concerning anti-dumping and safeguard measures against China by African countries is 48, accounting for 6.2% of investigated cases of trade protection by foreign countries, which is much higher than the proportion of China-African trade in China’s total foreign trade volume.

Experts point out that the end of the global textile quotas may lead to unemployment of about 30 million people, a large portion of whom are in Africa. Since the end of global textile quotas on January 1st, 2005, six textile factories in Lesotho went bankrupt within several months, leaving 7,000 people unemployed. Around the same period of time, seven textile factories in Kenya went bankrupt, causing a large number of unemployment. Besides, certain African scholars deem China-African trade relations a kind of unequal mode of “north-south economic relations” for the reason that Africa on the main exports raw materials and imports manufactured goods. Indeed, although in the past decade, trade volume between China and Africa has increased from less than $ 2 billion in 1980s to over $ 70 billion in 2007, yet the trade structure where China exports machinery, electronic products, textile and light industry products to Africa and imports oil, timber, mineral products and other raw materials from Africa has not been changed.

Differences in political understanding and concepts of values

The process of political development and democracy is quite rapid in Africa.  Democracy and Human Rights have become buzzwords in African circles. Some people think that China disregards democracy and human rights issues in Africa. Western countries for example, blame China for only pursuing selfish economic and trade interests in Africa at the expense of democracy and human rights. They argue that China’s unconditional economic aid has objectively supported the so-called “failed states” in Africa, and that it is detrimental to the promotion of “good governance.”

On the contrary, 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 African countries’ right to choose the path of development independently. It 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 offered material and moral support to the African national liberation movement and their struggle against imperialism, colonialism and racism since the 1950s. To date, it has dispatched more than 3,000 peacekeepers on 12 UN missions in Africa. Today, over 1,000 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.

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