Chinese foreign aid has reached the African continent since 1956. It has since emphasized integrated objectives, quoting equality, mutual benefit and non-conditionality as basic principles for its aid program. In other words, Chinese aid emphasizes a more business-like approach rather than altruistic official assistance. Recently however, African politicians, trade unions and businesses have complained about (relentlessly competitive) Chinese companies overpowering homegrown efforts for economic growth. Therefore, whether or not China’s presence in Africa is desirable is certainly up for debate (Oh wait!).
Surely, one could argue Chinese aid is not desirable; it has made the African economy vulnerable. The loans that go to Africa often end up paying for Chinese goods and services. Meanwhile, China’s appetite for African unprocessed raw materials and oil seems insatiable, creating worrisome trade surpluses for fifteen-some African nations. “China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones,” the governor of the Central Bank of Niger, Lamido Sanusi wrote in the Financial Times this month. “This was also the essence of colonialism.” African raw materials currently help to fuel China’s booming economy; ensuring African prosperity would help to secure China’s stronghold as an emerging world power.
Despite complaints, when President Xi Jinping arrived in Tanzania on Sunday – less than two weeks since taking over as President – he was greeted by hundreds of supporters. On Monday, Mr. Xi Jinping gave a speech in Daar es Salaam to address and mitigate African concerns. Signaling at the importance of preserving the Sino-African alliance, President Xi’s speech spoke candidly about “the new circumstances and new problems in Sino-African relations.” President Xi emphasized that China was helping Africa to grow, but also asserted,
China has and will continue to work alongside African countries to take practical measures to appropriately solve problems in trade and economic cooperation so that African countries gain more from that cooperation.
The most glaring issue appears rooted in how neither side genuinely feels the intended reciprocity of the relationship. While certain locals are alienated by Chinese presence, other locals do not understand the Chinese presence and Africa’s goals for this partnership. In addition, issues have also materialized for the Chinese. Chinese nationals, who act as advisors in sectors such as agriculture, experience issues with local integration due to the language barrier. China’s greater engagement also has posed risks. In recent years, kidnappings and other acts of violence have not been uncommon: several dozen Chinese have been kidnapped and released in Nigeria’s Niger Delta; Chinese construction workers have been kidnapped and even killed in Sudan, and nine energy prospection personnel were killed in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. In 2011, China evacuated 36,000 contractors from Libya during the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime.
Whether cooperation between these developing regions depends on the perceived reciprocity of their relationship, time will certainly tell. Despite such security threats, stewing local unrest, and trade imbalances, President Xi seems committed to a Sino-African alliance; South African leader Jacob Zuma seems to feel the same way. Xi agreed to abide by China’s pledge to continue its US$20 billion line of credit over three years, targeted at improving African infrastructural development, farming and businesses. Notably, Former President Hu Jintao had listed expanding cooperation in investment and financing as the first of his five priority areas; President Xi does not appear to make major changes to this aid policy. Mr. Xi also announced the plan to provide training to 30,000 Africans over the next three years, including 18,000 scholarships to study abroad. “We will strengthen mutually beneficial cooperation with African countries in agricultural, manufacturing and other spheres, helping these countries convert their resource advantages into developmental advantages,” said President Xi in his address, broadcast on Chinese television.
At this stage, the integrity of Sino-African “aid relations” will lie in mutual trust and affirmative action by both sides. China must avoid exploitative trade relationships. It should also respect African desires for homegrown economic development, a goal that China should also look to achieve themselves. Africa should look to help smoothly transition Chinese businessmen, as well as address security concerns for Chinese nationals. African governments must also understand that they are ultimately responsible for how they maximize gains from aid. Perhaps the debate should not center around whether foreign aid from China, or anywhere else, is desirable in Africa, but whether countries have the political, social and economic stability to be eligible donors and receivers of developmental aid. If the partnership is sustainable, the other’s presence will be desirable for their country’s futures. Sino-African relations might just push the talk about aid towards a new direction.
– Tiffany Lam