On December 12, 2006, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace sponsored an event entitled “China’s Africa Strategy: A New Approach to Development and Diplomacy?” with Visiting Scholar Joshua Kurlantzick and former ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia Dr. David Shinn. This event was organized in coordination with the release of Kurlantzick’s Policy Outlook, “Beijing Safari” and was moderated by Carnegie Senior Associate Minxin Pei. 

Kurlantzick began researching China’s involvement on the African continent when relatively little was known about the topic.  Recently, however, there has been a boom in interest for two reasons.  First, many observers see China-African relations as a test for how China will develop as an international power and as a way to better understand how China sees its own potential role in the world.  Secondly, because the United States and China have some shared interests on the continent like their roles as oil consumers, and not as many competing security objectives as they do in other regions, there is potential for US-China cooperation in the region. 

China’s policy towards African nations has become more active in recent years. China is concerned about depending on too few energy sources; Africa is a good place for China to expand its sources because it is rich in natural gas and oil, and Chinese companies are sometimes better equipped to deal with the political risks that exist in some African countries than Western multinationals. China is also looking to make friends and project its influence globally in order to isolate Taiwan and appear like a great power.  Furthermore, many African nations may find China’s development model of state-driven development without political reform attractive, particularly since some of the Washington Consensus reforms have not always reduced poverty in Africa. Also, China has the added benefit that aid and public diplomacy decrease the threat of China as an economic competitor against some African nations and increase access to African markets for Chinese companies.

China’s Africa strategy has five components.  The first is that China stresses that it is a different type of global power, a developing country that understands Africa’s development needs, and is better equipped to advocate for Africa at international trade negotiations. China also cultivates African nations that do not have significant pre-existing international relationships or that are currently isolated from the world, such as Sudan and Zimbabwe and Liberia – either nations that have become international pariahs or are recovering from conflict. China stresses that China-Africa relations are win-win and promotes this message bilaterally and within African regional organizations; China supposedly does not interfere in African domestic politics. Lastly, Chinese diplomats and leaders frequently travel to Africa to cultivate relations, traveling more frequently than US or French diplomats.

Kurlantzick talked about the various tools China uses to implement its Africa strategy, such as foreign aid.  Over the past few years, China’s foreign aid process has become more and more formalized as it takes on larger Chinese aid disbursements.  Currently China doles out about $2.7 billion dollars in foreign aid, up from only $100 million a decade prior, though it is sometimes difficult to determine whether this aid programming fits the DAC definition of aid.  China prefers to make foreign aid decisions on its own instead of involving itself in regional or global aid organizations.  China also tends to link aid to requirements to use of Chinese contractors, but China is beginning to become more collaborative, seeking out information on other nations’ aid programming and occasionally participating in in-country donor groups.

China is also increasing awareness of its country in Africa by promoting Chinese language and cultural studies on the continent and providing scholarship for good students to go to university on the mainland. China is paying special attention to cultivating the hearts and minds of African political elites. By 2008, an estimated 120,000 students will travel from abroad to go to college at a Chinese university, up for 8,000 less than a decade before. China is also making an effort to upgrade its diplomatic core and media outlets, such as Xinhua news service, to increase the type of exposure African citizens have to China. Xinhua now often gets picked up in international newspapers just like AP or Reuters, even though it is not an independent news wire. Furthermore, China is Africa’s third largest trading partner and invests significant amounts in African industries- this expanding trade relationship is also a tool that China uses to strengthen its Africa ties.

China’s Africa strategy has experienced both successes and failures.  On the positive side, polling in Africa suggests that many Africans believe that China has a positive impact on the world; they also demonstrate an increased interest in Chinese language and culture.  Many African nations have switched their diplomatic ties from Taiwan to China, with one of the latest being Senegal, an important nation in Africa. China has nearly doubled the amount of oil and gas it imports from Africa over the past decade, and when Chinese officials travel to Africa, they now receive a welcome once only reserved for officials from countries like France and the United States. China has also expanded its participation in UN peacekeeping missions, becoming the largest P-5 contributor to peacekeeping.

However, China has also experienced from bumps in the road.  Sometimes the aid China promises does not materialize, and this can cause resentment from aid recipients.  Furthermore, Chinese aid generally comes with no strings attached; no requirements for better governance or social programs mean that the availability of Chinese aid can undermine African governance.  Also, China is providing commercial loans to African nations that have just received debt relief, sometimes forcing them back into a cycle of debt.  What’s more, Chinese firms’ poor labor and environmental standards sometimes may be contributing to environmental problems and labor unrest in Africa. Lastly, even though China is adamant against involvement in domestic politics, there are cases, like with the most recent elections in Zambia, that China has disrupted local politics.

Still, the United States has much to gain from cooperating with China on foreign aid and Africa policy.  The US could help China develop a more permanent and transparent aid bureaucracy which would allow Chinese liberals to better promote their interests through the system. Also, the United States should encourage China to play a larger role in the donor community, allowing China to evaluate other countries’ aid programs and being subject to the same level of scrutiny. As major oil consumers, the United States and China also have incentive to work together toward political stability and energy security on the continent.

As an Africanist, Dr. David Shinn addressed how African nations perceive China’s new role on the continent. Shinn commented that for the most part, China stays out of African domestic politics and that even though African leaders are attracted to the African model of development, it is unclear whether they can successfully implemented it in their respective countries.  China’s Africa strategy is very government-centric; China is less experienced with working with civil society and prefers to provide aid on a government-to-government level.  According to Shinn, in some countries this can reduce the effectiveness of the aid, considering that in some African nations NGOs handle healthcare, education, and other social programs instead of the governments.

Shinn questioned how much we really know about African publics’ perceptions of China, though he conceded that African governments’ opinion is mainly positive. Shinn also mentioned that it is interesting that the African countries that are the most resource rich are the ones in which China is the most engaged in peacekeeping (Liberia-timber, Congo-minerals, Sudan-oil). There is, however, only a loose relationship between natural resources and military aid; loose because there are a few notable exceptions.  For example, Angola has considerable oil reserves and receives no military aid from China while Tanzania, on the other hand, receives military aid but has few natural resources.  And though China is far behind other countries such as the United States, Canada and Germany in its military aid to Africa, it does provide significant military aid to Sudan and Zimbabwe.

Shinn agreed that there were potential areas of cooperation in Africa between China and the United States and that both countries have share interests with respect to counterterrorism, combating money laundering and reducing conflict.

Shinn concluded by questioning the validity of much of the news that is reported on China’s role in Africa and cautioned researchers on the subject to guarantee the source of information before publishing.

During the question and answer period, Kurlantzick and Shinn first addressed a question posed by the moderator, Minxin Pei, about the cohesiveness of China’s strategy.  Shinn believes that China’s actions in Africa demonstrate a great degree of strategic planning, though they also have the flexibility to improvise. Both speakers addressed China’s perceptions of foreign critiques about its involvement in Africa.  Kurlantzick highlighted that it is difficult for the United States to criticize China for having relations with rogue regimes and when the United States at times does the same things, exemplified by its relationship with Equatorial Guinea.  However, it is important for China to understand that poor governance in Africa could have a negative affect on China as well, putting Chinese nationals that live in Africa in danger and creating an environment that is not conducive for Chinese companies Shinn agreed that China does not give enough regard to governance and commented that China does not embrace all rogue regimes in Africa.

Answering a question from the audience, Kurlantzick stated that South Africa has developed a very sophisticated China policy designed to gain concessions from the Chinese and gain influence as the interlocutor between China and other African nations. Shinn said that other African nations also have comprehensive China strategies. Egypt, Algeria and Sudan have been successful in their relations with the Chinese.

Another question came about China’s foreign aid bureaucracy. Kurlantzick explained that the Ministry of Commerce is really the locus of decision making on a daily basis in China’s relations with Africa. And though it may not be intentional, Chinese aid sometimes serves as a wedge for countries that do not want to give in to the requirements of international institutions like the IMF or World Bank. Shinn said that China should be brought in as a greater participant in these organizations in order to alleviate the problems it causes.

Kurlantzick and Shinn also addressed questions about how the competition from India affects the overall dynamic between China and Africa.  Shinn clarified that India is 15-20 years behind China in terms of its involvement in Africa and Kurlantzick noted that because of a longer history of interaction with India, Africans tend to have a less romantic, more concrete view of India than they do of China.

The last issue was that of Darfur. Shinn noted that China’s position has evolved somewhat away from solid, unquestionable support for the Sudanese government. Kurlantzick commented that it would be more effective to address China from a business/financial level on Sudan than from the highest levels of the US government.