China-Africa Expert, Ian Taylor, on China-Africa Relations

China-Africa expert Ian Taylor, St. Andrews University, spoke on 8 January 2013 at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

Below is a summary of his remarks, which touched on a wide range of China-Africa issues.


Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

Talk by Ian Taylor on “China-Africa Relations”

Date: January 8, 2013
Event: Other

Subject : Chinese Engagement in Africa
Speaker: Prof. Ian Taylor, University of St. Andrews, Scotland
Chair: Dr. Arvind Gupta, DG, IDSA

Introducing the subject, Ms. Ruchita Beri, Senior Research Associate, IDSA said that China Africa relations have expanded rapidly during the past few years. The two-way trade between China and its African partners increased from $1 billion in 1990 to nearly $150 billion in 2011, making it the most important trend in the continent’s international relations. Ms. Beri also noted that this engagement is not confined to any particular country or a region but has spread all across Africa. At the same time, she cautioned that China’s engagement has evoked a mixed response on the African continent.

In his presentation, Prof. Ian Taylor spoke about China’s self-image that was manifested in three forms:

  • China projecting itself as a country different from the West by asserting that it did not undertake any colonization,
  • China and Africa as mutually complementary partners in a win-win cooperation,
  • China’s engagement with Africa going back centuries, especially when Admiral Zheng Ho took voyages to East Africa.

Prof. Taylor explained the Chinese engagement in Africa in four different phases:

  • 1949-1976 – export of Chinese revolutionary model and ideas,
  • 1978-1989 – “Socialist Modernisation” and decline in Sino-African ties,
  • 1989-2000 – Post-Tiananmen Square and renewal of relations,
  • 2000-today – massive increase in Sino-African trade.

Prof. Taylor said that in the early 1950s, PRC primarily focused on national rebuilding and therefore it had limited relations with Africa. This trend changed by mid-1950s and by the time of the Afro-Asian conference in 1955, China established its first official link to Africa. The period also witnessed PRC’s diplomatic efforts to Cairo and as a result, Egypt became the first African country to establish relations with China in 1956. To strengthen its engagement with Africa, China created a separate department for West Asian and African Affairs in 1956. China also supported anti-colonial forces in Africa, though its main focus was North Africa.

At the same time, Mao gave his ‘Theory of Intermediate Zones’ according to which Intermediate Zone-I comprised the underdeveloped post-colonial world and the second Intermediate Zone included capitalist states in developed West. Thus, Mao demonstrated the importance PRC placed on developing world, including Africa, and proved it by a number of Chinese delegation visits to Africa. Of particular importance for Africa was the 10-nation tour of Zhou Enlai in 1963-64, which had three main goals:

  • Rationalise PRC’s policies in Africa,
  • Promote a planned 2nd Bandung conference,
  • Position China as distinct from Moscow.

Prof. Taylor mentioned that China’s entry into the UN became feasible because of increased number of newly independent countries, especially in Africa, as 1/3 of all votes in favour of China were African. However, by mid-1970s, Chinese influence in Africa became muted because:

  • China was seen as rigid, extremist and interested in promotion of its interests,
  • Many African leaders were keen to maintain a non-aligned position,
  • PRC support of “revolutionary action” in Africa aroused deep suspicion,
  • It was assessed that poor China could never compete with US or USSR.

In the second phase, China started its ‘socialist modernisation’ under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and called for massive FDI inflows. In this phase, realising that Africa would not help China in its progress, China started distancing from African affairs. Also, Beijing did not see Africa as an area where it could combat either US or Soviet influence. As a result, China cut back on its aid to Africa from $412 million in 1981 to $230 million in 1986.

During the third phase, following the Tiananmen Square incident, China undertook re-evaluation of its foreign policy because of PRC’s strained relations with the West and more supportive reactions from Africa. Subsequently, Chinese aid to Africa increased dramatically and China reasserted the policy of non-interference in state sovereignty. Since China perceived the world as being threatened by the sole-superpower, its policy towards Africa became centred on developing a support constituency vis-à-vis the West. PRC also pledged to aid development in African and to take a prudent attitude towards commercial links with Africa. The period also saw the beginning of a growth correlation.

In the fourth phase, expansion in Sino-African trade was the fastest ever from $10.8 billion in 2001 to US$166.2 billion in 2011. In terms of percentage of Chinese investment offers by sector, oil and natural gas dominated the process followed by rail and road. This phase also saw the formation of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) to formalise dialogue with three year action plans. However, problem with FOCAC was the limited capacity of the state to compel Chinese companies to invest in Africa and also opposition from domestic economic and political interests in China. Chinese government and businesses realized that doing business in many African countries was complicated because of corruption, lack of infrastructure and hidden costs. There were also problems in various relations like Zambia, Sudan and Ethiopia. As a result, African belief that China was the new saviour of Africa was becoming embarrassing and African countries realized that although China was a big and important country, it was just another partner. Prof. Taylor mentioned that major African exports to China were mineral fuel and crude while Chinese exports to Africa included machinery or transport equipment and manufactured intermediary goods.

Prof. Taylor commented that the current situation in China is very complicated. State-owned enterprises (SOEs) in China have clear incentives to maximise profit, even if their pursuit of profits damages China’s broader diplomatic interests. Provincial level SOEs make up 90 percent of all Chinese companies investing overseas and inter-province rivalries are constant. The interests of the ministry of commerce and ministry of foreign affairs also clash, which have serious implications for Beijing’s policy-makers, as they aim to project a positive image of China abroad. In many ways, China is pretty much a normal global actor and its businesses operate in much the same way as Western ones do. Therefore, the idea of the strategic use of economic relations by Beijing as a means of achieving power politics objectives needs to be treated with caution. Further, China is not a monolithic political structure, nor is it interested in spreading communism. The speaker suggested that since the central government in Beijing doesn’t have full control over the multitude of Chinese commercial actors abroad, the degree to which Beijing controls and directs the evolution of its international economic relations should not be overestimated.

Major Highlights of the Discussion

  • China included security issues for the first time in the recently-concluded FOCAC meeting.
  • China has nearly replaced the US in trade relations with Africa.
  • Since the economic growth in Africa did not percolate down to common man, the possibility of emulating the Chinese model in Africa remains questionable.
  • As far as trade is concerned, China attaches more importance to sub-regional and regional integration in Africa. It is because greater region is in Chinese interest for larger market. However, regional integration is not very successful in Africa.
  • The demographic dividend results in increased labour force in Africa. On the other hand, Chinese markets are saturated and wages are increasing, making companies uncompetitive and looking for alternative sources. In this situation, the African labour force could help China.
  • Not all African perceptions of China are rosy. There is resentment against China on streets as it was perceived that China’s entry denied livelihood opportunities to poor people.
  • China’s small arms export to Africa is a problem. China’s PLA is in charge and there is less developed end-user agreement and no track of weapons.
  • Contrary to India’s engagement in Africa, which was driven by Indian diaspora, common membership in NAM and Commonwealth, Chinese engagement was merchantalistic.
  • Only Mauritius and South Africa have Chinese diaspora. Otherwise, Chinese diaspora is relatively new and would take time to strengthen.
  • The Confucian Centres in Africa are not very impressive since their capacity and scope are very small.
  • Chinese military’s role in Africa is mainly about training and peace-keeping as it is the largest member of Security Council by troops.
  • China’s ability to project its soft power is limited because of difficulty in language. India has comparative advantage in this matter.
  • Other issues included Chinese colonies in Africa; consequence of economic penetration; sociability of Chinese in Africa; Chinese long-term investments in Africa; Chinese dam building in Ethiopia, considered as economic and strategic by the country.

Report prepared by Mr. Babjee Pothuraju, IDSA, New Delhi.

About the Speaker

Professor Taylor is also Chair Professor at the School of International Studies, Renmin University of China, Professor Extraordinary in Political Science at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, and an Honorary Professor at the Institute of African Studies, Zhejiang Normal University, China. His research has focused largely on sub-Saharan Africa. He has authored seven academic books, edited another eight and has published over sixty peer-reviewed scholarly articles, numerous working papers, reports, op-eds, review articles, encyclopedia entries, and book reviews.

His recent publications include The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) London: Routledge (2011), The International Relations of Sub-Saharan Africa New York, NY: Continuum/Bloomsbury Publishers (2010), and (with Dominik Kopinski and Andrzej Polus) (eds.) China’s Rise in Africa: Perspectives on a Developing Connection London: Routledge (2012). His recent academic articles include ‘India’s Rise in Africa’, International Affairs, vol. 88, no. 4, 2012, pp. 779–798 and ‘Spinderella on Safari: British Policies Toward Africa Under New Labour’, Global Governance, vol. 18, no. 4, 2012, pp. 449-460.