EXCERPT | Remarks on the Chinese Presence in Africa

EXCERPT | Remarks on the Chinese Presence in Africa

By Richard Aidoo and Steve Hess
via The Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 

MONROVIA, LIBERIA - FEBRUARY 1, 2007: Liberians line the streets of Monrovia, Liberia to celebrate Chinese President Hu visit. Besides rebuilding the National football stadium Chinese aid to the war torn nations is very popular with the locals. Liberia is rich in iron ore, timber, rubber and other resources which are desired by China. (Photo by Christopher Herwig / Aurora)

MONROVIA, LIBERIA - FEBRUARY 1, 2007: Liberians line the streets of Monrovia, Liberia to celebrate Chinese President Hu visit. Besides rebuilding the National football stadium Chinese aid to the war-torn nations is very popular with the locals. Liberia is rich in iron ore, timber, rubber and other resources which are desired by China. (Photo by Christopher Herwig / Aurora)

In the past decade, the two tales that have defined post-independent Africa are the continent’s ongoing political and economic transformation and China’s momentous return to the continent. Though these two big stories have received attention in academic circles, very little research has been done on the connection between the two trends. The changes in Africa’s politics and economics have had varying impacts on the China–Africa discourse. These impacts have led to some nuances in African responses to China and its policy of noninterference. China has been consistent in its rhetorical insistence on non-interference in the domestic affairs of African states. Like most international norms, non-interference is characterized by an identity challenge that lends itself to adapting conceptual and contextual usages of the term. As China shifts from its largely ideological role of the 1950s to the current pragmatic economic engagement in Africa, its cornerstone policy of non-interference has been increasingly challenged by the growing need to protect its now-established economic interests across the continent. Also, along these lines, China has drawn some appeal in most African countries with its principle of non-interference. This policy provides an edge over other competitors for African natural resources and markets, especially in regards to its Western rivals. 

However, a careful look at recent trends in Sino-African relations reveals that the seemingly broad appeal of China’s economic strides and practical implementation of non-interference is much more nuanced than is often reported. Non-interference appeals to both the African elites and the masses. Statements by African elites imply an  overwhelmingly positive reception on the continent, but many sectors of African society have revealed growing displeasure with Beijing’s unwanted competition in domestic markets. Hence, Beijing’s gain in elite support for its non-interference policy must adapt to accommodate instances of popular dissatisfaction with China. These are often based on the country’s competitive edge over African labor as well as some of the reported underhanded deals with some African governments over strategic resources like oil. Emerging anti-Chinese protests around Africa reflect this sentiment and have dictated that Beijing adjusts its application of non-interference to perform well in its operations within a variety of political and economic environments.

In different African political and economic situations it has become clear that China’s non-interference policy can be perceived or re-examined based on the following: First, China continues to display the ability to engage in diplomatic twists and turns in reaction to public support or lack thereof regarding its activities in Africa. In democratically stable countries like Ghana where public opinion can pressure a government or even threaten its existence, China carries out society-wide charm offensives and maneuvers to avoid being perceived as directly interfering in the domestic affairs of the country. Recent changes in visa regulations and the brouhaha over Beijing’s 3 billion USD loan to Ghana represent sudden shifts in China’s engagement with Ghana. These shifts were perceived as reactions to Ghana’s handling and subsequent deportation of illegal Chinese miners. This stands in contrast with Chinese dealings with autocracies such as Ethiopia or Angola, where Beijing gives overt support to ruling parties, even carrying out cadre exchanges and political training sessions. Second, despite Africa’s political and economic diverse landscape, the approach to economic and resource relations has proven less complex for China, as it has continuously stuck to its plan to improve infrastructure and also give out loans. This approach may not seem different from what the West has done for decades in Africa; however, China continues to insist on an approach that improves African countries with little to no interference in their political-economic setup. For instance, the major oil economies like Nigeria and Angola may be complex political and economic terrains to traverse, as corruption and social expectations might prove a challenging mix for an external actor. However, China’s contributions to infrastructure and loans as it reiterates its “business is business” maxim has kept it in business with the Nigerians as well as other complex, resource-based political economies. Third, as African political regimes continue to change, reaching out to the elites is central to the sustenance of Beijing’s economic and diplomatic agenda in Africa. In most African politics, especially in countries lacking some level of democratic openness, such as Ethiopia and Angola, China’s relationship with the elites provides a good basis for a long-lasting relationship, with the benefits of resources and markets. Whether political power can change hands or not, China has skillfully managed to either transition from the incumbent to an incoming opposition party or stay connected to the powerful elites. This has largely been accomplished while asserting its non-interference in the domestic affairs of the country. The case of President Sata in Zambia, who was antiChina in opposition and crossed over to pro-China as the winning candidate and current president of the copper-rich southern African state, is a known instance among many across the continent. 

China has advocated a principle whose core tenets were aligned with the initial struggles for African political independence as depicted by the Bandung Conference in 1955 (Review of International Affairs 1955). Since then, post-independence Africa has been characterized by immense and unsettling changes in the political and economic landscape. These have introduced and re-introduced structures and institutions that influence relations with external actors on the continent. For these reasons, it has become evident that as the interests and situations change for the main players in this relationship – China and African states – so have the relevance and applicability of noninterference. Scholars and policy crafters should recognize these changes and perceive them as emblematic not only of structural changes in the continent’s politics and economics but also of Beijing’s intentions to adjust to these changes in order to secure its expanding economic interests. China will insist upon and uphold the policy of non-interference in its partnerships with African states since this sets it apart from past external actors on the continent. However, current research should recognize and address the emerging challenges and potential pitfalls to this policy, especially as Africa’s politics and economics continue to evolve. 

Cite this Article:

Aidoo, Richard and Steve Hess (2015) Non-Interference 2.0: China’s Evolving Foreign Policy towards a Changing Africa, in Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 44, 1, 131–133. 

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