”In Africa, the European Union is perceived both as the home of former colonial masters and as the greatest promoter of free trade and liberal democracy. China is seen as a new strategic partner for economic development, particularly in the arena of physical infrastructure. However, these perceptions are not uniform across Africa,” writes Dr David Monyae, Co-Director of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) Confucius Institute (CI). This article first published on Friends of Europe is part of Friends of Europe’s Discussion Paper ‘Europe, China and Africa : new thinking for a secure century ‘ to be published in November 2016, which brings together the views of Friends of Europe’s large network of scholars, policymakers and business representatives on the future of EU-China cooperation in the security field in Africa.
The Perceptions of the European Union and China in Africa
In Africa, the European Union is perceived both as the home of former colonial masters and as the greatest promoter of free trade and liberal democracy. China is seen as a new strategic partner for economic development, particularly in the arena of physical infrastructure. However, these perceptions are not uniform across Africa. They vary based on people’s knowledge and experience of the activities of the EU and China on the ground. How the EU and China fare in assisting the African Union implement its Agenda 2063 vision will be crucial to how both are viewed by generations of Africans.
Since the late 20th century, China has made massive investments in Africa. The establishment in 2001 of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has seen more than $300 billion invested in various African states, mostly on infrastructure. Direct foreign investment has brought visible infrastructure development through such project as the Lagos-Kano railway in Nigeria ($12 billion), an oil refinery in Lobito, Angola ($5.8 billion) and the Nairobi-Mombasa railway in Kenya ($3.4 billion). The magnitude of Chinese investments speaks to their commitment to a developed Africa.
Lack of infrastructure has long been an impediment to Africa’s development. Chinese investments have begun to answer Africa’s needs with roads, border posts, harbours and conference centres. The fragmentation of Africa with arbitrary boarders has also held back regional integration, communication and planning. The Nairobi-Mombasa railway shows how infrastructure developed by China can assist regional integration through movement of people and goods. China adapted to the African environment much faster than the EU and it approves loans quicker, brings projects to life in a short period of time. The EU remains stuck in the past, defining developmental assistance in liberal and idealist terms, seeing itself as a ‘force for good’. It tends to muddle developmental issues with its desire to advance liberal democracy. This approach worked during the Cold War, but it’s not clear if it is of any use at this particular juncture of the global order.
Despite the 2008 global financial crisis, Africa remains home to many of the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Rwanda. Their growth is phenomenal considering the small bases from which it comes. China’s contribution to Africa’s economic development is significant, despite negative impacts in terms of environmental damage, unequal trade and ill-considered investments. Sino-Africa relations can be credited for creating the ‘Africa Rising’ phenomenon by attracting many more players to invest in Africa. The EU appears to be reacting to China’s Africa engagement by constructing its own policy towards Africa, independent of China.
There are critics of the China-Africa relationship who liken it to European colonialism. Others praise China’s unprecedented investments and its loans free of attachments or interest. Although China’s rise has been peaceful, it has raised suspicions from traditional global powers and their allies. Yet most credible surveys of African views of the Chinese presence show a favourable image. Beijing’s cancelation of African states’ debts and provision of interest-free loans has boosted Chinese soft power.
China’s economic growth has been watched with marvel by African states. According to the World Bank’s 2012 report, China has managed to lift 500 million people out of poverty since 1981. Forecasts show China’s gross domestic product overtaking that of the United States. Chinese life expectancy has drastically improved and infant mortality has been curbed largely due to improved health care. These are also African aspirations, enshrined in development goals. The state’s involvement in China’s growth, contradicting traditional Western narratives calling for the rolling back of the state, has showed Africans that different models of governance can work.
Sino-Africa economic activities have attracted other players that traditionally did not have interests in Africa. Middle Eastern and Asian countries – including South Korea, India and Turkey – have increased their presence. Even traditional partners from the West have upped their game in response to China’s presence. This influx of non-traditional investors creates potential for political and economic developments with clear interests for the continent. China has to be credited for being the first mover. While it may still dominate the large infrastructure sector, there are opportunities for new players to carve out positions in areas such as IT and small business.
The ‘Africa rising’ phenomenon emanates from the close relationship African states have had with China over the past two decades. What is particularly intriguing about China’s rise is the return of a state narrative to development activities. The rejuvenation of the ‘developmental state’ thesis is a major highlight of Sino-Africa relations. It opposes the Western narrative developed in the 1980s and 1990s through the neoliberal policies of Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programmes have not left positive legacies. The rollback of the state from health care, education and other essential sectors has slowed economic development in many African countries. Privatisation of key services like water and electricity caused setbacks to poor Africans who relied on the state for their livelihoods.
It is crucial for Africans at governmental, sub-regional and regional levels to be part and parcel of the development of new relations with foreign powers, as opposed to being mere bystanders. African states should play a prominent role in deciding what they want from the countries investing in their economies. At policy level, sound plans and strategies must be developed as guiding blueprints. The 2020 aim to silence guns and create an AU Standby Peacekeeping force are notable goals that have brought in external support, notably from China through the FOCAC framework.
Western aid was long conditioned by colonial-era ‘dark continent’ mindsets and the perception of assisting lands on the periphery of civilisation and modernity. The early phase of the aid narrative focused on Western assistance to rescue ‘backward Africa’ from poverty and disease. Aid advocates still argue that poverty is so deep that the smallest help can go a long way in proving relief. Aid has to be credited for saving lives, particularly through such success stories as the anti-malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns. However, critics point out that aid has prevented African growth by creating a dependency relationship.
The end of the Cold War in the 1990s brought a resurgence of internationalism which sought to bringing trade and aid together into a developmental framework. The 2000 Millennium Development Goals became the guide for Africa and the rest of the developing world in key issues like education and healthcare. The MDGs were to be achieved through a consolidated global effort. Indicators were to be revisited to adjust and measure development. At the heart of MDGs is the notion that the most peaceful and stable democratic governments can register substantial development. Good governance, civil society participation, entrepreneurial spirit and the private sector were to be the drivers for achieving the MDGs.
The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals are the successors of the MDGs. There are 17 goals with 169 targets crucial to African states. African countries performed poorly in the MDGs. Only Botswana and Equatorial Guinea met the first goal of halving the number of people living below the poverty line. Analysts calculated that to meet some of the goals, African states would have needed to register annual growth rates of 7%. With the new SDGs in place, African states still need to accelerate economic growth in order to meet the 2030 targets.
Sino-Africa engagements on the SDG goal of affordable and clean energy are important. China needs to commit to environmentally friendly infrastructure and energy – sectors where it has heavily invested in Africa. Beijing has taken steps to invest in renewable and clean energy, including wind power in Ethiopia and solar energy in Sudan. However, the focus on clean energy is limited. The environmental costs of China’s rise should be a lesson for African states gearing up for industrialisation.
African underdevelopment has long been a topic of contentious debate. Guyanese historian Walter Rodney famously argued that Africans were on a quest of development before 1500. His 1972 book ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ still resonates with dependency theorists who point to slavery and colonialism as detours to an African development route that had been established before contact with Europeans. Echoes of this thinking can be found in calls for reparations for colonialism and the scrapping of African colonial debt.
The African Union spearheaded the drive for African decolonisation in the 1960s and 1970s. Its mandate pushed for development through a Pan-African vision of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful continent guided by its citizens, acting as a dynamic force in the international arena. Post-colonial Africa’s development debates are an amalgamation of home-brewed ideas like those of the Economic Commission for Africa and those of Bretton Woods institutions, such as the World Bank’s Berg Report in 1981. One prominent African proposal can be found in the Lagos Plan of Action for African Development drafted in 1980. It was a direct response to the IMF and WB structural adjustment programmes. The AU’s ambitious Agenda 2063 vision is indebted to this rich history of African development ideas.
Agenda 2063 is the African Union’s blueprint for the future based on inclusive growth and sustainable development. It calls for an integrated Africa guided by Pan-African ideals; an Africa shaped by good governance, democracy, respect for human rights, justice and rule of law; a peaceful and secure Africa; an Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values and ethics; an Africa whose development is people-driven with a key role for woman and youth people; a strong, united Africa that can be an influential global player.
As part of the first 10-year implementation plan, ending all wars by 2020 is a goal that perhaps transcends all the rest. Strategic global partners – including China – are a key part of Agenda 2063’s vision. China’s $1 billion funding pledge for Africa’s Standby Peacekeeping Force speaks volumes about Beijing’s commitment to African development.
Africa needs to strengthen its ties with other global powers. Through these relations, African states can benefit from increased investment and cooperation in multilateral organisations like the World Trade Organisation and United Nations Trade and Development Conference. As the post-1945 global order expires, Africa needs to strategically align itself with all powerful players. Yet Africa’s development must be shaped and defined by Africans.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s Discussion Paper ‘Europe, China and Africa : new thinking for a secure century ‘ to be published in November 2016, which brings together the views of Friends of Europe’s large network of scholars, policymakers and business representatives on the future of EU-China cooperation in the security field in Africa. These articles provide insight into stakeholders’ views and recommendations as China evolves from an economic to a security player in Africa.
*The views expressed in the article are that of the author/s and do not necessary reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.