African Safari: Could China’s Hunt for Resources Possibly be a Boon?

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“As my mother said, it’s important for a girl to have more than one suitor.”

Dambisa Moyo, economist and author of multiple New York Times Best-seller books, applies her mother’s maxim to Africa’s economic situation. For Moyo, the girl in the saying represents Africa. And amongst the many suitors clamouring for hand, is China. However, while China’s financial engagement in (sub-Saharan) Africa has strongly increased in the last few years, it has also become subject to widespread criticism, mostly by Western countries.

For China, economic relations with Africa are of great significance. They provide the country with much needed resources and help open up markets beyond the struggling European and American economies. Politically, the connections with African leaders give China a broader backing in supranational organizations. But what do these Chinese investments mean for the African countries? Many Western commentators have condemned China’s race for resources as neo-colonial or exploitative.

However, there are also others who describe it as a win-win situation with the Africans also coming out on top. Some economists like Dambisa Moyo even see the Chinese activities as a boon for Africa. China has initiated huge infrastructure projects, built roads, hospitals, schools, thereby creating new jobs and helping millions of Africans. Furthermore, Moyo thinks that China treats Africa as an actual business partner, and presents an alternative to Western aid and development attempts. China has become Africa’s main trading partner – surpassing the US in 2009 – with a share of 38 percent. China’s foreign direct investment in Africa has skyrocketed and currently accounts for $77.1 billion, most of it being invested in Nigeria ($18.8 billion), South Africa ($8.2 billion) and the Democratic Republic of Congo ($7.8 billion).

This flurry of activity sees Africa becoming more integrated in the world economy, with trading partners lining up to be added to an ever-growing list. These new partnerships bring new economic opportunities for African countries. Emerging economies, especially, have acquired an increasingly important role in Africa’s trade and investment, growing from approximately 23 percent to 39 percent in the last ten years. This allows a deeper South-South co-operation that could help advance Africa’s market diversification and continue its growth.

So it’s not surprising then, that in contrast to Western criticism, Africans themselves don’t necessarily feel exploited by Chinese investors. In fact, the Pew Global Attitudes Project supports the opposite; namely that China’s role is mostly welcomed across the continent. Although the numbers are not as strong as in a 2007 survey, when favorable views of China outnumbered critical judgements by two-to-one or more in almost every country across Africa – except for South Africa, where people never really favored China – China’s image in Africa still remains mostly positive. In Kenya, 71 percent of the population has a favorable opinion of China, compared with 21 percent who hold an unfavorable view. The same study shows, that in no other country, except for Pakistan, China is seen in such a positive light. In Kenya, there is also a strongly positive view that China’s growing economic power is a good thing for their country. These findings certainly correlate with the economic role China plays in African countries and the effects these activities have.

China’s arrival has improved the infrastructure in many African countries and stimulated its manufacturing sectors. For example, in Chad, in order to encourage economic production, Chinese firms have planned to construct the country’s first oil refinery, build new roads, provide irrigation and put up a mobile telephone network. This is partially due to Western criticism and high public interest groups; today, China is interested in having collaborations with African countries that can be seen as mutually beneficial and long-term. At the Forum on China-African Cooperation (FOCAC) 2012 in Beijing, head of state Hu Jintao has just recently held out the prospect of a new credit line of 20 billion dollars to African countries for the next three years to assist them in developing infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, and small and medium-sized enterprises. According to the FOCAC, Hu Jintao also said that China and Africa should expand collaboration and explore cooperation in more fields, including agriculture, manufacturing, infrastructure and other priority development areas in Africa. Of course, these are only words that have to be followed by actions. However, these public efforts demonstrate what’s at stake for China. But in order to uphold and bolster this economically and politically valuable relationship, China has to offer support for Africa’s development. The tighter the interrelation, though, the more crucial it is for China to deal with the consequences.

Beijing’s biggest trump with the African nations, though, is exactly its reluctance to interfere in internal affairs and to tie aid to political conditions. In contrast to many European countries or the US, which look at African countries generally as victims in need of aid, China treats them as actual business partners. Many Africans see this as a sign of equal treatment and non-discrimination. Foreign investors have all but abandoned certain mineral-rich countries like Chad because of unrest and corruption, whereas the Chinese have fewer reservations or demands on the governments’ behavior. Scholar Laura Caniglia (2011) thinks that most African countries seem to appreciate these new opportunities offered by partnerships with China. They do not only gain economically from the export of resources, they also feel like they are engaged in a dialogue among equals because China thinks of every African country as a sovereign state responsible for its own government.

This approach is seen as a welcomed alternative to the condescension and conditionality of some Western countries. It also makes African countries less dependent on Western donors and, according to Caniglia, may even push African governments into a more active role in their own continent. Dambisa Moyo thinks that Chinese investments and the decrease in the flow of Western aid since the 2008 financial crisis could even help fight corruption by making African governments more responsible and accountable. For Moyo, the roots of African leaders’ corruption and unaccountability lie in international aid, which severs the link between African citizens and their governments. Similar to the mantra “trade is better than aid”, she suggests that foreign investment and job creation are the only forces that can reduce poverty and strengthen civil society.

Moyo’s and Caniglia’s views are, of course, debatable. Developing countries need both trade and aid, because aid is first needed to enable trade and also to help the weakest in society. Corruption and greed won’t automatically dissolve just because there is less aid money to fight about. And in the future, as resources get scarcer, new disputes will arise. Also, the tighter its relations with African countries become, the more difficult it will be for China not to interfere in political aspects. All in all, it suffices to say that China’s rush for resources in Africa, for now, might be a boon but its activities do need critical observation and improvement. However, for the time being, China’s economic activities have spawned much-needed trade and investment and created a large market for African exports. And if China’s involvement in African countries – and the discussion it has created – makes Western (and Eastern) countries rethink and re-weight their aid and trade strategies in sub-Saharan Africa, it will certainly have its good sides for Africa.

Indeed, Africa is definitely dancing with more than one suitor by now.

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  1. Pingback: China – A Race for Resources | Studentreporter

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