The Roles of Aid in Politics Putting China in Perspective



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King, Kenneth (2006) “Aid Within the Wider China-Africa Partnership: A View from the Beijing Summit,” Mimeo.

Concluding Comments on Aid in the Wider Partnership

It is important to locate the specifically aid dimension of the Summit within the wider Partnership perspective. By the time the final Declaration of the Beijing Summit had been read out, not by China alone, but in sections by China’s president, the Ethiopian premier who is Co-Chair of FOCAC, and by the Egyptian president who will become Co-Chair through to the next summit in Cairo, references to aid or development assistance were much less in evidence. Interestingly, ‘development assistance’ was only used once in the Beijing Summit Declaration, and was reserved for the attention of the developed economies, along with a single mention of the MDGs and poverty reduction:

We call on the international community to encourage and support Africa’s efforts to pursue peace and development. In particular, we urge developed countries to increase official development assistance and honour their commitment to opening markets and debt relief to enhance Africa’s capacity in poverty and disaster reduction and prevention and control of desertification, and help Africa realise the UN Millennium Development Goals. (FOCAC Declaration in China Daily, 6.11. 2006)

What had appeared as specific assistance commitments in President Hu’s eight points had been reworked within FOCAC’s preferred language of ‘political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchanges’. The commitments now appeared in a much more comprehensive statement of two-way cooperation:

Deepen and broaden mutually beneficial cooperation and give top priority to cooperation in agriculture, infrastructure, industry, fishing, IT, public health and personnel training to draw on each other’s strengths. (FOCAC, ibid.)

The greater detail of the Action Plan from the Beijing Summit, 46 of course, still contains the specific pledges of President Hu, on hospitals, anti-malaria centres and rural schools, and goes beyond his speech to mention Confucius Institutes to help meet local needs in Africa for Chinese language. But as is traditional in these cooperative FOCAC agreements, the priority is first given to political relations, then to economic cooperation, then international affairs, and only then to social development. And within social development, the agreements typically cut across what we have called the aid/non-aid boundary. Thus, two-way cultural and media exchanges, twinning, and people-to-people agreements all fall within this category, as does the granting of Approved Destination Status for tourism.47 So do the more one-way agreements on scholarships, schools and hospitals (FOCAC Action Plan in China Daily, 6.11.2006).

As far as coverage in the immediate aftermath of the Summit is concerned, the African presidents who stayed on for a time, such as Mbeki of South Africa, and Bouteflika of Algeria have continued a strong emphasis on their bilateral ties and on bilateral agreements with China, across a wide range of cooperative endeavours. Meanwhile, the opening of the African Commodities Exposition in Beijing’s International Conference Centre on the day after the Summit strongly reinforced the two-way trade focus of the larger Forum. No less than 170 firms from 23 African countries have taken advantage to display at the Exposition.

We shall look, finally, at what may prove influential from this Summit.



  • It would seem successfully to have married intensive bilateral cooperation in a wide and inclusive, collective framework, apparently without a prescriptive tone;

  • Two-way trade and business opportunities have been very visibly associated with the Summit and new business instruments set up to maintain the momentum;

  • A series of new development assistance initiatives have been promised in education, health, preferential loans, market access and debt cancellation;

  • Possibly, as influential as anything over the period of almost a week surrounding the Summit has been the positive engagement with Africa in innumerable articles, interviews, pictures, films, hoardings and posters. With presidents and premiers, with students and researchers, with business people and traders, with ambassadors and with school-children. Not to mention Africa in dance, song, music, cuisine, dress and art. The theme of ‘Amazing Africa’ has been a welcome change from the skeletal Africa of starving, staring children, HIV AIDS and refugee camps.

Will the images last? The Summit has offered no Beijing Model, or Beijing Consensus48 Rather. [sic] it has confirmed a strategic partnership that does not depend on a donor to deliver but on African countries’ efforts independently to resolve African problems. It has disseminated the Chinese notion of ‘win-win’ for both China and Africa; and has preferred to propose the goal of ‘prosperity for all’ to the goal of ‘making poverty history’.

Konings, Piet (2007), “China and Africa: Building a Strategic Partnership,” in Journal of Developing Societies, Vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 341-367.

China has had a long involvement with Africa marked by ups and downs, and continuities and shifts in policy. While China and Africa have often had mutual interests in various forms of cooperation, their relations have not always been without friction and tensions. China’s initial interest in Africa was primarily motivated by Cold War ideological and strategic considerations. Its main objectives during the Cold War era were to compete with western and Soviet influences on the continent and to shore up votes for the eventual rejection of Taiwan’s credentials at the UN. China’s anti-western, anti-Soviet and anti-Taiwan thrust, combined with its self-identification with Third World struggles, has shaped its foreign aid activities in Africa. China initially lacked the resources of the Cold War superpowers, but still invested significant energy in the realization of its objectives. It dispatched technicians to Africa to provide modest social and economic assistance, as well as military training and to build infrastructural monuments to China-Africa solidarity, including the first railway to link Tanzania and landlocked Zambia during the period of opposition to South Africa’s regional hegemony during apartheid. Its financial and military support to ‘revolutionary’ dissident groups and liberation movements resulted in frequent conflicts with African rulers. The era of liberation wars in the 1970s saw China choose sides and patronize its favoured forces – an activity aimed at thwarting the Soviet Union’s influence on the continent even though it was not always in the best interests of Africa. Chinese interest in Africa receded in the 1980s as development efforts were diverted inwards and Chinese leaders were forced to seek assistance from the West for the necessary modernization of its economy.

With its emergence as a significant world player in the era of neoliberal globalization, China has returned to Africa on a larger scale than ever before and with the ideological and financial resources to compete for political and economic influence. Some of the factors for China’s renewed interest in Africa were similar to those prevailing during the Cold War era. China continued to present itself as the leader of the Third World in its efforts to forge an alliance with African states, an alliance that would enable it to better contest the perceived western hegemony in multilateral organizations. China also still needed African political support for its attempt to minimize, and preferably eliminate, Taiwan’s presence on the continent. Nevertheless, renewed Chinese interest in Africa was primarily economically motivated. With the enormous expansion of its domestic economy, China was in search of natural resources, new markets, and investment opportunities. China’s trade with Africa has subsequently risen sharply.

In its endeavours for economic and political influence, China has a competitive advantage over the West in some areas. China provides a discourse that effectively legitimizes human rights abuses and undemocratic practices in the guise of state sovereignty and attempts to combat western hegemony, which strongly appeals to many African leaders. This stance is then coupled with an opportunistic policy regarding arms sales to all and sundry in Africa, including widely reviled dictators (Alden, 2005; Taylor, 2005). Chinese arms sales to Africa have actually increased since the 2000 Beijing Declaration of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, in which China promised to cooperate in attempts to stop the illegal production and trafficking in small arms and light weapons in Africa (Committee on International Relations, 2005; Pan, 2006).

Unlike their political leaders, who appreciate the establishment of strategic partnerships between Africa and China in economic and political affairs, several African scholars and civil-society organizations have displayed a more ambivalent attitude towards China’s growing presence in Africa. Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, for instance, declared recently that China ‘is both a tantalizing opportunity and a terrifying threat to South Africa’. On the one hand, he said that China was ‘just the tonic’ that mineral-rich but economically ailing South Africa needed. But he added that exports from China and Hong Kong to his country are double those from Africa, and almost double what South Africa exports to China. He called the trade relations between South Africa and China ‘a replay of the old story of South Africa’s trade with Europe’ as evidenced by the fact that ‘we sell them raw materials and they sell us manufactured goods with a predictable result – an unfavourable trade balance against South Africa’. He went on to accuse Chinese companies of flooding the South African market with cheap products, underbidding local firms, and not hiring African labour. As a result, the largest South African trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), has called for a restriction on Chinese imports and demanded that at least 75 per cent of retailers’ stock be locally made goods (Mooney, 2005).

And finally, there are growing internal and external pressures on African leaders to introduce good governance and democracy. The long-standing Chinese principle of non-interference in state sovereignty is being increasingly contested in Africa. The AU’s constitution allows the organization to intervene in a member state should it find that there are gross violations of human rights, or for other humanitarian reasons. The peer review mechanism of NEPAD is structured around an independent review process of an African country’s adherence to good governance criteria. This represents another step towards the institutionalization of norms derived from contemporary neoliberal concerns.

As a result of these developments, China’s diplomacy towards Africa, which is aimed at cementing a strategic partnership and maintaining sovereign protection against the corrosive influence of the West, will have to find new ways to engage the continent – approaches that are not predicated on securing the compliance of the African political elite alone. Otherwise, it will run the danger of being portrayed – as has been the case in Sudan – as a friend of a military regime set on committing violations against African people in the name of the crudest form of self-interest (Alden, 2005).

Kurlantzick, Joshua (2006), “Beijing’s Safari: China’s Move into Africa and Its Implications for Aid, Development, and Governance,” in Policy Outlook, November 2006, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Success and Failure

Many African nations have welcomed China’s new safari. In 2005, China-Africa trade reached $40 billion, up 35 percent year-on-year from 2004. China offers a vast new market for Africa; the volume of African exports to Asia rose by 20 percent in the past five years, and China’s trade deficit with Central Africa, the most strife-torn part of the continent, grew to nearly 80 percent of China-Central Africa trade. Unlike nations in Southeast Asia, African states, except for textile exporters like South Africa and Lesotho, have little export overlap with China: Uganda’s overlap is 8 percent, Ethiopia’s 4 percent, and Nigeria’s 1.7 percent. China plans to further triple trade with the continent by 2010, putting it in the league of the United States and Europe as a trading partner. China also has become the second-largest consumer of African resources, signing massive new oil and gas deals in Nigeria, Angola, and other countries.

African elites and publics often have welcomed China’s presence: Program on International Policy Attitudes polls show, for example, that 62 percent of South Africans believe China is having a positive influence on the world. Some African elites perceive China as different from Western donors and investors; Beijing is not linked to the neoliberal economic model and its past structural adjustment programs. Even the head of the African Development Bank has announced that, “We can learn from [the Chinese] how … to move from low to middle income status.”

But in some respects, China’s engagement with Africa is qualitatively different from the engagement of other powers and financial institutions. Western powers are hardly blameless in relations with Africa—they have backed dictators from Mobutu Sese Seko to Yoweri Museveni. Yet today, most traditional donors have agreed that governance is vital to development, and the United States has created the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which rewards well-governed poor nations. The MCC thus far has a mixed track record, but it at least creates a model that other donors can build upon.

At the same moment, for the first time in decades Africa has entered the radar screen of international corporations and Western governments. In a world facing a potential peak in production from major Middle Eastern oil fields, Africa’s oil and gas prove even more attractive. Much of Africa is posting its strongest growth rates since independence. The continent seems ready to settle long-running civil conflicts in countries like Congo, and has begun to climb the rankings of the World Bank’s index of environments for doing business.

China’s involvement could threaten this African renaissance. Growing Chinese loans to Africa, especially at high commercial rates, could threaten billions in recent forgiveness by the World Bank and IMF’s Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative, since China also loans to these nations. If China uses aid tied to investment to win major oil and gas deals, it could convince other emerging powers in Africa, like India, to follow suit, potentially undermining governance and sparking conflict for resources. Chinese arms sales continue to fuel conflict in Africa; China publishes no information about its arms transfers overseas, and a recent Amnesty International report found 17 percent of small arms collected by peacekeepers in the Congo were of Chinese design.

Chinese investment could contribute to unchecked environmental destruction and poor labor standards, since Chinese firms have little experience with green policies and unions at home, and some African nations have powerful union movements. In Gabon, illegal timber exports to China comprise roughly 70 percent of all timber exports. In Zambia, workers in a Chinese-run mine have erupted in violent protest against safety standards and low wages, which they believe led to an accident last year in which 49 miners died. In the recent Zambian election, opposition candidate Michael Sata played on this anger, accusing Chinese companies of exploiting local workers. Though Sata lost, his supporters then rioted in the Zambian capital, targeting Chinese businesses.

More generally, the state-led business model China offers could prove problematic. Chinese firms with state links often have poor standards of corporate governance within China. Still, in China, the rule of law is weak but does exist; the Chinese government has managed to prosecute the most corrupt officials. In Africa’s weakest states, where the rule of law often simply does not exist and economic policy makers do not enjoy the same kind of independence from politicians as in China, this state-led business model could simply be a disaster—an invitation for rapacious governments.

Worse, if China offers aid without any conditions, it will allow itself to serve as a wedge between it and other donors. This has already begun to occur, and not only in Angola. In recent weeks, Chad has announced that it may evict two oil companies, Chevron Corp and Malaysia’s Petronas, from a project backed by the World Bank, which had insisted that some oil profits in Chad be spent on improving social welfare. Eventually, Chad may replace the oil firms with Chinese companies, since while it was considering kicking out Chevron and Petronas it was breaking relations with Taiwan and establishing relations with China, which already had explored oil investments in Chad. Similarly, in Kenya Chinese aid has helped the government avoid IMF and World Bank criticism of its failure to implement a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy. In Zimbabwe and Sudan, Chinese backing has allowed governments to resist pressure from democratic African states to open a dialogue with the Zimbabwean opposition and to halt the genocide in Darfur.

Some leading Chinese officials understand that, despite Beijing’s positive image today, it faces significant downside risks in Africa. Like the Western powers before it, Beijing could make potentially useless investments in the continent to woo strategic African nations. By relying on state-linked companies for investment in Africa, China will be forced to boost its financial support for these firms, which tend to be worse managed than truly private Chinese companies. Just as important, China will face a choice in its future relations with Africa and other developing regions—a choice that will help determine how the world views a more active China. It can consolidate ties to the leadership of a few regimes, like Angola and Sudan, potentially alienating large segments of the public and leading to instability that threatens Chinese interests. Already, besides the attacks in Zambia, militants in the Niger Delta have warned Chinese companies from operating there. In the longer run, if nations like Sudan or Zimbabwe ever transitioned to freer governments, average people might take revenge on Chinese businesses and citizens.

Facing these potential pitfalls, China could alter its African strategy: It could build a broader type of influence based on Beijing’s popularity among average Africans, rather than solely relying on links to authoritarian regimes. Building this popularity will mean working with established initiatives designed to promote African stability and development. It may surprise many Western policy makers that China now has more peacekeepers operating under the UN flag than any other permanent member of the Security Council. China has begun working with African nations on malaria interventions; Beijing also rhetorically supports the New Partnership for African Development, an African-led program to promote better governance.

Most importantly, China has begun considering how it can modernize its aid programs. On the ground, China has begun to participate in donor coordination groups; though it does not always follow coordination groups’ strategies, just participating is a major step forward. Beijing has begun establishing mechanisms to review how its aid is used by recipient nations. Though China does not yet have a permanent aid bureaucracy like USAID, there are signs it wants to create one: It has quietly developed a partnership with Britain’s Department for International Development and sent officials to the United States to study how the United States structured USAID and the new Millennium Challenge Corporation.

If the United States, Europe, and the international financial institutions want China to change its behavior, they must offer Beijing another option—and do it now, while Chinese officials are still creating a global foreign policy. Starting with former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s speech last September, the United States has called for China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the world, including presumably in Africa. But besides asking China to become a stakeholder, traditional powers must offer China a stake. If Beijing fails to respond to this opportunity, then Western nations can justly criticize China’s presence in Africa.

Offering a stake would give China a chance to conceive its interests in the developing world broadly—mediating conflict, promoting development, tackling non-traditional security threats—rather than focusing on its own narrowest interests. To incorporate China into existing frameworks of overseas development assistance, other nations should aggressively solicit participation from Chinese officials in donor coordination groups within individual African countries. Other donors can work with Chinese embassy staff on the ground to ensure Chinese participation in donor groups, help improve Beijing’s capacity for managing its aid, and prevent China from destroying donor coherence.

Offering a stake also would involve providing China a larger say in the international financial institutions. This could entail making China a larger shareholder in the Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It would also involve major donor countries throwing their aid programs open to China and allowing Chinese officials to study them if Beijing opens its aid programs in return.

Other donors also could allow China to play a larger role in setting the health policy agenda on Africa. One initial possibility is to allow China to take the lead on one important disease issue, such as malaria. There is a precedent. China seems interested in playing a leading role on avian influenza—Beijing hosted a January donor conference on avian influenza, which forced the Chinese government to pay closer attention to flu issues and raised nearly $2 billion in pledges.

Outside aid, developed nations could engage China around resources in Africa. China, the United States, and Japan could create a kind of “consumers cartel” to combat the major oil producers and prevent African producers like Angola or Nigeria from playing consumers off of each other. As Senator Richard Lugar has suggested, this would entail more formal cooperation between Washington, Tokyo, and Beijing on energy security, and even, in the future, joint exploration efforts in an attempt to boost oil supplies.

The United States and international financial institutions also could help China reform Beijing’s own tools of influence, and could help prevent China from offering commercial loans to nations facing high debt burdens. Working with China to create a permanent Chinese aid organization could reduce the influence of the Ministry of Commerce, which is more likely to tie aid to investment. It also could empower Chinese officials who want to make China’s aid more transparent, just as having a permanent Chinese environmental administration at least provides a permanent place at the policy table for China’s environmental regulators.

Unfortunately, the United States and other powers seem to be taking the opposite approach. Rather than accepting China into the G8 group of industrial nations, where it clearly belongs, the group has allowed complaints by Japan and Russia to keep China out. Instead of offering Beijing a bigger seat at the aid table, many major donor organizations do not even know which Chinese officials are responsible for aid disbursement. Rather than working with China while continuing to uphold promises for better governance, the United States and Japan have wooed the continent’s biggest oil producers, and most autocratic states, like Equatorial Guinea. In the longer term, these policies are not sustainable, and one day China’s policies will be so well established that it will be impossible for other actors to influence them. Today, if the United States wants China to take responsibility on the continent, it must become more responsible as well.

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