Sino-Africa ties: A Pan-Africanist Perspective
The friendly relations that Africa and China enjoy today are believed to have evolved since the 9th Century AD.
During ancient times Africans and Asians conducted trade, diplomacy, social and cultural affairs based on integrity, mutual benefit, friendship and solidarity.
Historians reveal that seafarers could sail from mainland China all the way to the east coast of the African continent.
Proof of trade activities between Africa and China dating from ancient times are seen in the work of Louise Levathes, “When China Ruled the Seas” (1994).
According Levathes, “Frankincense from Somalia, as well as myrrh, used (for treating) women who had suffered a miscarriage” could be bought in the western market of Chang’an in north China.
In fact, several ancient African kingdoms that inhabited areas in present-day Kenya, Tan zania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa had strong political and economic ties with China.
During his trip to China in 2001, former South African President Thabo Mbeki recalled that such ties were built on equality, friendship, mutual respect and benefit, but unfortunately, this friendly relation was disrupted by “Western expeditions of plunder, slavery, wars of domination, (and) colonial rule” (Mbeki, 2001).
Since then the friendly relations that existed between Africa and China faded away down memory lane.
However, the relationship between the people of Africa and China was rekindled in the 1950s after Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, as well as at a time when many countries on the African continent were agitating for self-rule.
China was one of the countries that extended assistance to the liberation move ments that were spearheading the struggle against colonialism.
After Independence the liberation movements continued to work with China, especially those that emulated Chi na’s political and socio-economic models.
Since the 1950s, Africa-China relations transcended beyond inter-governmental affairs, as Diaspora Chinese traders based in Southeast Asia as well as traders from areas such as Hong Kong and Taiwan are said to have developed trade links in Africa.
By the early 1970s, traders from Hong Kong and Taiwan were known in many parts of Africa for their inexpensive textiles and consumer products. And by the late 1970s, Hong Kong and Taiwan traders established representative offices in Africa with a clear purpose of advancing their trade interests in various African countries.
Whereas Africa-China relations of the 1950s and 1960s were pinned on ideological grounds, especially ideologies of third world solidarity, the late 1970s saw a paradigm shift with the introduction of the “opening up policy” by the Chinese leader Deng Xi aoping.
Throughout the 1980s, Africa-China relations became less and less defined by ideological solidarity. As China soldiered on with the “Opening Up Policy” and communism suffered credibility with the end of the Cold War, Africa-China relations became more and more trade based.
This became apparent after the end of the Cold War when China adopted a “Going Out Policy” which purpose was to find foreign markets for its products as well as secure reli able markets from which to import mineral resources for its rapidly developing economy.
Since more and more African countries became politically stable after the Cold War and also eager to develop their people’s living standards, Africa became even more relevant for China’s foreign policy, especially in the context of the going out policy alluded to earlier.
From the mid-1990s, Africa and China economic relations experienced sustained growth resulting in the deepening of the historic friendship between Africa and China.
For in stance, trade volumes between Africa and China reached US$5.5 billion in 1998, which was six times the figure reached in 1979 the period when the opening up policy started.
Furthermore, trade between Africa and China became diversified. This economic growth had a positive ripple effect on other areas of co-operation between the two sides.
The friendly relations between the two sides saw them supporting each other on the question of Taiwan and the reform of international organisations. More African countries reiterated their support for the “One China Policy” while China on the other hand welcomed Africa’s calls for the reform of international organisations.
• The 21st Century
The beginning of the 21st century saw Africa and China relations being raised to an other level of cooperation. Greater cooperation was necessitated by Africa’s eagerness to achieve certain set goals such as the consolidation of peace and stability, sustained economic growth, and the realisation of the Millennium Development Goals.
On the other hand, China’s sustained economic growth placed greater pres sure on Beijing to expand external markets for its products as well as to secure its access to mineral resources needed for its massive industrialisation.
Both, Africa and China became conscious of the need to collaborate.
Africa was not only impressed with the model used by China to lift millions of its people out of poverty, but was also aware of the capital owned by China that could be used to develop infrastruc ture on the continent.
Equally, China was not oblivious of the “new Africa” that was all of a sudden “moving from the periphery” to the world’s centre-stage and becoming the prize for another round of fierce strategic contentions.
In the eyes of Chinese leadership, Africa was increasingly becoming of strategic impor tance.
As a consequence, Africa and China cooperation was taken to another level when it culminated in the Beijing Summit of 2000, which took place under the framework called, Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC).
Through FOCAC, Africa and China for malised their historic relations into a result-driven mechanism based on long observed tenets of equality and mutual benefit that has characterised the two sides’ relations.
Therefore, the two sides and above all China believes that FOCAC represents a new strategic partnership that emphasises political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win co-operation and cultural understanding.
In the political sphere, African countries have reaffirmed their support for the “One China policy”, while China supports Africa’s calls for the reform of international organisations such as the UN Security Council, WTO, IMF and World Bank.
Under FOCAC, high-level visits involving heads of state and other high-ranking government officials are frequently taking place between Africa and China.
On the economic front, trade between Africa and China has increased immensely to the extent that China has surpassed Britain and France to become Africa’s second largest trade partner after the United States.
Trade between Africa and China is estimated to have jumped from US$12 million in the early 1950s to US$18.55b in 2003.
Accord ing to Chinese government estimates, by June 2004 there were 674 Chinese companies doing business in Africa. At that time these companies had a combined investment value of US$1.509b.
On the social front, Africa and China relations in the fields of education, health and cul ture increased to new levels. China committed itself to Africa’s human resources de velopment by providing scholarships and various study and training courses to African students and professionals. China also dispatched medical personnel, teachers, and agricultural experts to Africa.
Greater interaction between Africa and China has led to greater movement of migrants between the two sides.
Since the first FOCAC Summit in 2000 China has committed itself to helping Africa in tangible ways.
During the FOCAC summit of 2006, President Hu Jintao committed China to eight specific measures in support of Africa’s development.
China promised then to double the amount of grant assistance; create a China-Africa development fund; build a conference centre for the African Union; cancel debts of Heavily Indebted Poor Coun tries; continue to open its markets for African markets; establish economic co-operation zones in Africa; and strengthen cooperation in agriculture, health, and education.
During FOCAC 2009, the promises of FOCAC 2006 were declared as having been achieved and a new set of eight measures for the period 2009-2012 was announced by the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao.
Through the new measures China committed itself towards assisting Africa by: establishing a China-Africa partnership to address climate change; enhancing co-operation with Africa in science and technology; helping Africa build financing capacity; further opening up its market to African products; enhancing further co-operation with Africa in agriculture; deepening co-operation in medical care and health; enhancing co-operation in human resources development and education; and expanding peo ple-to-people and cultural exchanges.
While FOCAC represents indeed a new era of warm diplomatic relations between Africa and China, we are nevertheless forced to pause and reflect on the nature of Africa-China relations.
Through the lens of the Western media, the world is made to believe that China is in Africa for its own interest and at the expense of the Africans.
We are made to believe that China is another coloniser, here to loot Africa’s resources.
Notwithstanding what the West says, it is no secret that Africa-China relations are unbalanced and we as Africans have to address this imbalance.
• The Pan-Africanist Perspective
Pan-Africanism as an ideology has over the years given Africans direction and purpose in their struggles against slavery, colonialism and imperialism.
Dr Tony Martin, the pro lific writer of Black History, recalled that Marcus Garvey’s ideology of pan-Africanism was based on three simple concepts: race first, self-reliance, and nationhood.
By race first, Garvey meant that Africans should fight selfishly for their racial self-interest, whether in literary, cultural expression, or writing of history.
And by self-reliance, Garvey philosophised that Africans should rely on their own means of production.
Whereas by nationhood, Garvey wanted Africans to build political power in order to reclaim the conti nent from its exploiters.
Oddly enough Garvey’s philosophy can be used to define the parameters or framework of Africa’s engagement with China.
Reading through the resolutions of the past Pan-African congresses, it is interesting to note that there is no mention of China.
It is speculated that China remained off the radar of Pan-Africanism mainly because of two reasons.
First, Africa and China have since ancient times maintained friendly and harmonious relations. Secondly, China has always accepted the fact that it is a poor country lacking sophisticated technology, thus not ca pable of conquering the world.
Today, China is no longer a poor country. In fact, China is since August 2010 regarded as the world’s second-largest economy.
It is a “China (which) is already a major driver of global growth. (Where) the country’s leaders have grown more confident on the interna tional stage and have begun to assert greater influence in Asia, Africa and Latin America” (Barboza, 2010).
This is the China that Africa has to deal with in the 21st century.
China relations with Africa are conceptualised through political, economic, and social themes.
Having said this, how relevant is Garvey’s prophesy to Africa-China relations?
Starting with self-reliance, Garvey calls for African people to do things for themselves, especially in business and industry.
China is a country that is on the lookout for markets for its cheap products and it has found in Africa such a market.
The dumping of Chinese products has the potential of retarding Africa’s efforts towards industrialisation.
Therefore, Africa-China relations should complement Africa’s industrialisation efforts as well as regional integra tion in order to increase intra-Africa trade.
Marcus Garvey’s call for nationhood was made with the recollection that only an Af rica which is strong can reclaim its dignity from alien exploiters.
He was convinced that strength can only come through unity.
Therefore, today Africa must adopt a common position with regards to its relations with China. Such common position will force Africa to develop a set of expectations when negotiating with China under FOCAC.
Africa should realise that its relationship with China is a symbiotic one. Africa needs capital to kick-start its industrialisation. On the other hand, China needs natural resources for its fast growing economy.
With regards to race first, Garvey demanded that Africans should always put their race first.
As part of its policy towards Africa, China is using cultural exchanges and the open ing of Confucius centres in Africa and other parts of the world as part of its soft diplomacy.
Many Africans in the world know China and they are becoming more and more aware of Chinese activities on the continent. Africans are studying Chinese culture and language through the Confucius centres.
More and more Africans are dreaming of visiting or study ing in China. On the other hand, mainland Chinese remain ignorant of Africa.
Some com mentators have called for African countries to counter China’s soft power by opening up African cultural and language centres. Failure to do that could result in the ‘Chinesation’ of Africa just like it was Westernised by colonialism.
The unfortunate situation is that China is confidently dictating the ideological direction of the relationship between itself and Africa.
One of the principles that inform China’s foreign policy towards Africa through FOCAC is the dictum of “equal and win-win co-op eration”, but Africa’s participation in FOCAC has been limited to listening and accepting China’s generosity included in the eight measures associated with each FOCAC summit.
There is no doubt that China brings massive capital into this relationship. But this does not and should not put Africa in a beggar position.
Because Africa has the mineral resources that China needs so badly, and secondly, Africa has close to 53 votes that China needs so badly when it comes to voting at international platforms.
The lack of clear interpretation or description or even prescription for that matter on how Africa should engage China from a Pan-Africanist perspective leaves the continent at the mercy of China’s greed and generosity.
• This article has been excerpted from a paper presented by Himuvi Mbingeneeko at a workshop on “Sustaining the New Wave of Pan Africanism” in Windhoek, Namibia in December 2010.