China has become an indispensable partner in Africa. The inroads it has made have reached every corner of the African economy and society. No African country – not even the handful that maintain relations with Taiwan, the “rebel Island” of the Middle Kingdom – falls outside the scope of Chinese cooperation that now forms part of everyday African life.
Beijing’s reach is characterised by the brand new headquarters of the African Union Commission in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Abeba. This huge multi-storey building with a 2,550-seat conference centre – a symbolic place where Africa’s major strategic decisions will be made, including those affecting sovereignty – is a gift from China. Who among Africa’s many global partners can compete with such largesse? Any opinion poll of young Africans would probably show that almost all would opt to strengthen cooperation with China, and that they would place their country’s partnerships with China above all others.
But will all this African goodwill towards China stand the test of time? It’s also a question that leads to others: What should China do to maintain Africa’s confidence? What should Africa be doing to take full advantage of its cooperation with China? And also, what should be done to ensure this cooperation is not rejected by future generations of Africans?
We at the African Union Commission believe that China has every interest in hanging on to the admiration it has been gaining throughout Africa. To do this, China must make sure its cooperation with Africa is a win-win relationship. In foreign relations, philanthropy does not exist; what matters is national interests, and China’s ties with Africa follow this basic logic. By laying the foundations for win-win cooperation, China can contribute greatly to Africa’s development, and it is that which is most likely to attract the sympathy of Africans.
China needs to innovate in its relations with Africa by helping the continent overcome poverty and misery; by teaching Africa to fish rather than by giving it fish, and by encouraging African countries’ integration into the global economy so that the continent can play its part in managing world affairs. Having itself now become a key global player, China must help its African friends enjoy the virtues of good governance. The principle of non-interference that guides China’s cooperation with Africa should not stop it from taking this historic step, because supporting moves toward a global role for Africa could help expand China’s credit among Africans. In other words, Chinese cooperation must help Africa to reduce substantially its dependence on the rest of the world.
China can help Africa to look after itself by becoming self-sufficient in food, by hastening its industrialisation and by coming up with ways of financing its own development. African countries need China’s assistance to put in place their own education and training agendas and eventually, to play their part in the management of world affairs. It’s a contribution from which China and Africa would both benefit, and would certainly give China and the Chinese people a lasting place in the hearts of Africans.
Chinese aid to Africa is already immense, reaching into every sector. And it is highly appreciated by Africans because of its visibility and its impact on development. China’s contribution to redressing African countries’ lack of physical infrastructure has marked an important new stage in their economic growth.
But even so, a vital question needs to be answered: Is Chinese aid being used efficiently? Put another way, is Africa making use of its strategic cooperation with China to once and for all escape the dead end of poverty and misery and achieve an economic breakthrough? Will future generations blame China for delaying their continent’s development, just as present generations blame Europe?
If tomorrow’s Africans are not to reject Chinese cooperation, it is vital that today’s African leaders should match Chinese aid with good political and economic governance. Heaven helps those who help themselves, they say, and China is certainly helping Africa. But it cannot take Africa’s place in allocating resources and adopting policies that accelerate its economic development.
For its part, Africa needs a common strategy to create a long-term win-win partnership with China, emphasising multilateral ties rather than the current bilateral approaches that are extremely burdensome for most African countries. In the absence of such a strategy, and without the efficient use of Chinese aid, the Africa of tomorrow is likely to witness the downside of the Chinese-African partnership.
That said, China has accumulated an enormous capital of trust with Africa and its people. To preserve that capital, China needs to become more innovative in its cooperation, and must find ways of doing so that do not provoke social instability because of job losses, and that do not risk extinguishing African ingenuity.
As for Africa, we Africans must take all necessary steps to make our cooperation with China a real opportunity for growth and development. It is also vital to understand that today’s Africans feel a huge need for democracy, human rights and freedom of expression. And tomorrow’s generations of Africans will be even more demanding because of the accelerating phenomenon of globalisation.