On China - Africa Summit '06
By Chippla Vandu
Africa may be a continent of immense diversity, but when dealing with China, it appears more as a country made up of different units.
China's population exceeds that of the entire African continent by about 400 million. When the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, visited a select number of African countries seven months ago, few could have predicted that in November 2007, practically all African leaders would be invited to Beijing for an unprecedented China-Africa Summit.
But, the writing had been on the wall. In January 2006, the Chinese government released its African Policy, aimed at explaining what China hopes to achieve not just in Africa but with Africa. Carefully crafted statements and a subtle language tone resulted in a document that seemed to be coming from a country which viewed itself not as superior, but as a partner.
About a week and a half ago, the BBC reported that the Chinese government was cleaning up Beijing in preparation for a summit of African leaders.
Wrongly spelt English street signs and instructions were being corrected and the city was also being given a face lift. Nothing unusual, I thought. That was until I witnessed some of the changes online—giant billboards across the city, depicting what was meant to be the African landscape, its people and wildlife.
Even a non-Chinese writer like yours sincerely, who easily gets turned off by the poor quality of written English often found in Beijing, and who found the billboards "ridiculous" could not but help take a picture of one.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (2nd R Front) with President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and other African guests arrive at the meeting hall before the opening ceremony of the High-level Dialogue and the Second Conference of Chinese and African Entrepreneurs at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, capital of China, on Nov. 4, 2006. [Xinhua Photo]
The Beijing Summit on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) opened on Saturday, the 4th of November 2006 and ran until the following day. It's probably the largest gathering of African leaders ever, outside United Nations General Assembly meetings; the summit is aimed at strengthening China-Africa relations.
According to the state-controlled China Central Television International (CCTV), forty-one African Heads of State and forty-eight Heads of Government were present in Beijing for the summit, with hundreds of trade negotiators and business people. These alone hint at the significance of the summit.
China's interest in Africa is, without a doubt, greatly linked to the latter's huge pool of natural resources, much of which remain untapped. And with rapid development and modernization occurring across China, there is an increasing need for raw materials to continue fueling such development.
African leaders in a position of strength (those who govern nations rich in resources of interest to China) must negotiate sensibly. The need to gradually curtail the export of raw materials and focus on the processing or conversion of such materials before export has become all too obvious. Non knowledge-based societies would simply be unable to compete favorably in today's fast-changing world.
According to this report in the People's Daily Online, trade between China and Africa reached almost $40 billion in 2005, four times more than it was in 2000. China has also granted tariff waivers to certain export items from the least developed African countries, as well as offered to train thousands of African professionals.
Furthermore, China View reports that the Chinese Premier (Prime Minister), Wen Jiabao, has called on both parties to work together towards increasing bilateral trade volume to $100 billion in four years time.
Chinese involvement on the African continent is not without criticism. Most notable among these is its desire to deal and trade with Sudan, despite the ongoing conflict and killing of innocent civilians in Darfur province.
The Chinese government should use its influence on Sudan to press for a speedy resolution of the conflict. The quiet diplomacy, which it claims to be employing, doesn't seem to be working.
For now, China appears to be doing something which neither the United States nor Europe did — engaging Africa. Whether this is solely driven by China's need for raw materials or also to increase its global sphere of influence would be debated for a long time to come.
The President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, has described the China-Africa partnership as a partnership of equals (Botswana is one of the most stable democracies on the African continent). When it comes to dealing with Europe and the United States on the other hand, he sees a relationship between masters and subjects.
Like the rest of the world, I have watched China's increasing presence on and interest in the African continent for the past couple of years. From ouright skepticism, my position of has became one which cautiously accommodates China's increasing role on Africa's development.
However, the fact remains that African nations are largely raw material exporters and until that changes, true partnership would be anything but achieved.
When China rolls out the red carpet for African leaders and decorates Beijing with billboards that read "Beautiful Africa", it unavoidably sends out a message to governments in Europe and the United States.
While such marketing may have unconsciously boosted the morale and confidence of the African leaders and business negotiators in Beijing, it leaves the rest of the world guessing what China's exact ambitions might be.
The United States preaches freedom and democracy, and is currently engaged in a war that it hoped will bring these to the Middle East. Yet, a significant chunk of humanity—in China—who see tangible improvements in their daily lives (from an economic point of view) live in a society that would be classified as undemocratic and repressive by the American government.
By investing in real infrastructural development in Africa, undemocratic China—which of itself is still on the road of development—appears to silently doing what democratic Europe and the United States have avoided.
Africa remains the least developed of all continents. And, as to whose influence would likely be greatest in the near future, your guess is as good as mine.
One thing is certain however. As Chinese influence on the continent increases, the influence of the United States (which appears to be primarily driven by the need to secure energy resources) and Europe declines. Eventually though, Africa would have to learn to stand on its own feet and the sooner it is able to do so, the better.
Chippla Vandu is a writer and academic. He blogs at Chippla.
Please e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org