China-Africa Ties: Scholars Speak Out

Published on 6th September 2013

China-Africa Partnership: The quest for a win-win relationship

Edited by James Shikwati

Published by the Inter Region Economic Network


Reviewed by Harrison Maganga

How much do you know China? In Kenya, most people know China in relation to cheap imports, counterfeit goods, and imitations of products made in Europe and America. China seems to have actually replaced the many products from the western countries that most people used to flaunt as “imported.” China is also famous for the big stadiums that they have built in Africa. The Chinese have also builtroads, a case in point being the Nairobi-Thika superhighway. Cases of sub-standard and harmful products from China have also come to the limelight. Reports of scandals also abound as to how Chinese companies land contracts in Africa. Despite all these, the Chinese presence in Africa in all fields of enterprise and social spheres is evident.  Performance and delivery of services is also a discussion point when it comes to Chinese organizations.

The history of China-Africa relations has not always been played above the table. The vast populous country was considered a no go zone largely because of its portrayal by the Western world as part of the anomalous communist bloc.Those with good memory can recall the early 60s and late 70s when a Chinese connection especially at the universities and government circles would make one a subject of trailing and investigation. Any visit to the Chinese embassy in Nairobi, for example, would raide a secuity alarm. Seeking education in China and Russia was equated to treason.

Those days are no more.The cold war is behind us and the Western countries are falling over each other to get a slice of the emerging Chinese economy. The "democratic" West has now penetrated China with its ideologies and philosophies, and most importantly, trade and industry. Now, discussions about China are right over the table. China has opened its gates to Africa and the rush to get a slice of the action is intense in both Africa and the West. China is now a byword for business success. The challenge now is to find a situation where trade is balanced and not tilted in favorof one party, China.

The book under review: China-Africa Partnerships: The quest for a win-win relationship is a manifestation of the liberalism that now accompanies discussions on relations between China and Africa. Appropriately titled, the book is a result of presentations at various forums in China and Africa, specifically Nairobi, on how to balance the scales in favor of each region.

The editor of the many articles by different authors is pertinent when in the introduction he states that while China has successfully evolved from a donor recipient to a donor, Africa still wallows in the syndrome of dependency on donor aid. This means that Africa joins the partnership for a win-win scenario from a weak position. Africa is the one looking for tilt in its favor.

We can also add that while China is an integrated whole, Africa is a plethora of states with different ideologies, government systems and economic set ups that are as far apart as night and day. Agreement with one country in Africa can be achieved expeditiously. Getting other countries to agree on one policy in relation to China is an enormous undertaking that needs deft diplomacy and a knack for uniting diverse people with different ideologies and past and present political alignments. Then there are the former Anglophone and Francophone countries to contend with. They all have hangovers from their colonial pasts and any dealings with China have to be seen through this spectrum. You most certainly have to contend with negative influence and persuasion from countries like Britain and France who are the losers in the success in trade between Africa and China.

So the question begs: is a win-win relationship possible? Although recent pronouncements, especially from the Chinese side, paint a rosy picture, for Africa the story has always been and will remain a win-lose one  in such partnerships.

Given, China is a huge marketplace, and if Africa plays its cards deftly, it can at least balance the trade. With 1.3 billion people, China can hardly satisfy its people’s needs in agricultural produce. Here, Africans can, if they deftly handle the situation, be a net exporter of agricultural produce to China. However, the story seems to end there. The Chinese are an industrious people and certainly do not want a balance, they want to win. They are also a smart people and want to win Africa even as they portray a desire for balance.

China incidentally is taking advantage of Africa’s rebound from the unequal romance with the West and will play safe as long as this rebound is in progress. When the inevitable separation from the West is finally realized, the Chinese will upthe game and go for the jugular in its efforts to consummate this relationship. In addition, it will not be in Africa’s favor.

The book, being a collection of contributions from people of different backgrounds and settings, is an effort to romanticize the relationship between China and Africa. Granted, Africa and China have gone a long way in their relationship, but as for balances in favor of Africa, this is a debatable issue. In its long history of colonialism, Africa has never attained a win-win situation with her colonizers. China has bigger battles to win in Europe and America before she can allow Africa to have a balance of trade.

China is spiraling to outpace the US as the pre-eminent trade partner in Africa and the world and will certainly not wait to hold Africa’s hand for a balance of trade. Recently, in an article on the internet preceding President Obama’s visit to Africa, a reporter stated that: “China has made in-roads into the continent and there has been concern expressed by American business that the United States has lost ground as China tightens links with Africa. China overtook the US four years ago to become Africa’s largest trading partner”. When you are in a position of strength, you fortify your situation and not wait for anyone to catch. America may not catch up. Will Africa ever reach a balance of trade situation with China? Your guess is as good as mine is.

Various issues are raised in the book. Some contributors have offered suggestions; some have registered the status quo.Tang Xiao from the Foreign Affairs University of China states correctly that if Africa makes progress in regional integration, it will be in a  position to implement policies to benefit from China-Africa relations. “Regional integration in Africa combined with China-Africa cooperation will benefit Africa’s one billion people” says Xiao. I totally agree, only that such integration effort is in its nascent stage.Such organizations include the Common Market for the East African Community countriesof Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. These could easily bring together 100 million people.This is a huge market-fighting front that should be carefully harnessed. Another important integration group is the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Free Trade Area that was established in 2008. 

Another contributor, Liu Hongwu, points at the earlier mentioned scenario where China is dealing with different countries in various stages of political and economic progress. He mentions six reasons that might hinder Africa’s development and hence cooperation with other countries like China: First, Africa remains mostly underdeveloped with three fourths of the world’s most underdeveloped countries being in Africa. Second, Africa still relies on the Western developed countries and the international market dominated by these countries. Third, external intervention and powerful countries’ involvement make Africa’s future uncertain. Fourth, Africa solidarity is faced with many challenges, including poverty. Fourth, Africa is faced with non-traditional security problems such as food crises, drought, HIV and the refuge problem. Finally, Africa faces ineffective governance that restrains sustainable development. All these and others factors are a hindrance to forming a united front that could spur development towards a balance or surplus in trade with China. In this respect of course, China has the advantage.

Two contributors, Joseph Onjala and Mediatrix Tuju in their article: “Kenya’s Implementation of the 4th FOCAC Plan of Action: Hollow Commitments and Lack of  In-Country Support” give us an insight into the trading volumes and values between Kenya and China, including a comparison of Kenya’s trade with India. With well-researched tables, the contributors argue the lack of focus on the part of Kenya to harness the trade in their favor. They conclude that Kenya should lobby China and India for zero-rating of export taxes on some products. The contributors also state that many Chinese firms complain of the poor business environment in Kenya, with numerous impediments making it risky to start a business. This may be true for other African countries. Such issues hinder smooth exchange of business and do not foster advantageous facilitation of balances in trade. In this case, this only makes individuals in these countries engage in deals rather than business.

China-Africa Partnership: The quest for a win-win relationship is a book that belongs to the research genre. The information contained is enormous. The contributors have enviable credentials. The sections are well-arranged according to subject. This makes it easy for researchers to peruse through and get valuable information.The cover is attractive and tastefully done. The pictures, however, are biased towards China. I would have expected to see some pictures from Africa.

In the next edition of workshop proceedings, the editor should consider serious re-writing of the articles presented for readability. As it is, the book only suits technocrats and bureaucrats searching for information to write yet another book.One way of doing this is to choose an incident in the past or present relating to China and Africa and extensively report on it. The other stories should weave around that theme.

The book looks too crowded and compact. In this day of the internet and computer, too much printed material puts off people. There is no time to read. I my opinion, this book should now bepackagedinto several, well-illustrated books or brochure-like publications for the coffee table or reception space.

The cover designer or editor should have balanced the pictures with scenes from Africa. Instead of two columns, the designer would probably have increased the type size to be easy on the eye. In this respect, I see several small books in this volume.

Purchase the book at:

The Stanley Bookshop, Nairobi Kenya.

Tel.+254-020-229115 Fax .+254-020-211408

Email: [email protected]

This article has been read 11,905 times