Today, China plays a new role in the international system, garnering increasing attention around the globe. In its expedition to develop and improve its image, China has focused on maintaining good relations with Africa as a whole and has committed itself to several projects in different African countries. Some researchers have concluded that Africans generally view China as a positive influence. They argue that there is no single African perspective on China, but the number of people who view China as a positive influence in African countries is very close to (and in some cases surpasses) those who consider the United States as a positive influence. China’s assistance to Africa is growing but is dwarfed by the United States. Since the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2000, China has made a systematic effort to expand and give a greater profile to its soft-power policies in Africa. Although explicit soft-power commitments in health; humanitarian assistance; and academic, professional, and cultural exchange are growing, they are not yet anywhere near the United States’ commitments in these areas. The main source of China’s soft power in Africa is, therefore, the strength of its economy and its economic engagement. The expansion in China-Africa trade and investment, as well as the proliferation of Chinese-led infrastructure projects, reflect a fundamentally more optimistic view of Africa’s future as compared to the Western engagement, which remains driven primarily by humanitarian programs and, to a larger extent, security interests. Many Africans see China’s economic engagement in their countries as more practical and realistic and also in line with the African continent’s priorities. This, in the long run, gives China an important interest in seeing the continent grow economically.
Apart from the actual trade and investment aspects, the reputation of China as a rising power is profoundly appealing and drives a desire to tie African economies more closely to China’s rise to global economic preeminence. The financial crisis of the United States is seen in many ways as a powerful outcome of the Washington consensus and it may continue to seriously undermine the power of the United States’ economic model. China’s respect for sovereignty rhetoric still gives a boost for China to many Africans. China constantly emphasizes respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and its policy of noninterference resonates for obvious reasons with many African leaders. But it also agrees with many Africans who regard the Western lecturing on human rights, economic liberalization, and democracy as condescending and hypocritical. Besides, China attaches less or no conditions or broad to their assistance and loans and this allows projects to be implemented quickly, with visible and often immediate results.
Diplomatically, as a result of the increase in trade and investment with Africa, China has fostered closer ties with many African governments, and in doing so, it has won its worldview and managed to reassure Africans as well as the rest of the world of its friendly intentions. China’s public diplomacy emphasizes the notion of solidarity and win-win cooperation. Chinese officials have always taken pride in pointing out that as far back as the fifteenth century when Admiral Zhen He made his famous voyage to the East African coast, China never took this as an advantage to subjugate, colonize, or enslave Africans. They constantly relay and emphasize China’s record of support for African liberation movements and the common interest of the developing world in creating a just and equitable global economy. China seeks to present itself as a champion of developing-country interests in international forums, and actively aims at ensuring that the sense of solidarity will be mutual with other countries. This is illustrated in Minister Shi Guangsheng’s speech at the first FOCAC meeting in 2000 when he declared:
“China will unswervingly side with African countries and peoples to safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of the vast number of developing countries and push for the establishment of an equitable and rational new international political and economic order. Here, let me take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to African countries for your support for China’s accession to WTO. China’s accession to WTO will be beneficial not only to China and world economic and trade development but also to the economic and trade cooperation between China and Africa. We hope that African countries will continue to render us your precious support so that China’s accession to WTO will be realized at an early date”.
Politically, China accentuates the notion of “respect” for African countries, which is embodied in its policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign countries. This approach is less confrontational than the Western interventions and it resonates with many African governments and indeed with many (but not all) African citizens to whom Western intimidation and condemnation seem patronizing and unimpressive. A good example is when China disinclined to sanction President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe in 2008 at the United Nations Security Council. Chinese officials and analysts explained that they were simply following the approach of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and that if SADC changed its stance they would reconsider.
Economically, China steadily points out its initiative on the win-win aspect of its engagement in Africa. This approach is welcomed by many African nations for several reasons. First, African nations value the practicality of this approach considering that China comes to Africa as a business partner, not to persuade or offer charity. Second, the perception is that economic self-interest is believed to bring about more sustained engagement as compared to humanitarian impulse or intermittent crisis diplomacy. Finally, the win-win concept implies that there is flexibility which gives room for negotiations on the terms and conditions of the arrangements between China and Africa and that the former will be available to respond to the demands of the latter.
Nevertheless, China’s increasing engagement in Africa has provoked a range of reactions in both Africa and the West. In Africa, some of the reactions are based on the anticipation of what hopes China can bring to the continent in trade, investment, and alternative development partnerships; in other cases, the reactions are instilled by fears of what a seemingly greedy demand for energy, resources, and export markets will mean for growing economies, weak governments, and deprived populations. In the West, China’s mix of economic engagement and soft power has stirred up some fears and insecurities that Western influence in Africa will eventually be diminished and that investments in issues of governance, transparency, and accountability will be damaged and weakened in the eyes of the African States, particularly those that are rich in natural resources but have poor governance and lack legitimacy or national vision. On the other hand, this would imply a healthy competition for trade and investment, and soft power may ultimately benefit Africa’s economic and developmental growth provided that African states utilize the opportunity wisely. Ultimately, the challenge will be whether African governments and their people will make use of this external engagement by China as well as other key players to their eventual national benefit.
In this new expanded phase of engagement in Africa, China has placed special emphasis on its soft-power strategies, while at the same time playing both to African audiences and to the international system. In the process, China seeks to portray itself as a non-threatening and responsible global power to the rest of the world. Since China is involved with multiple audiences, it requires a complex mix of strategies to go forward, and it may also have to avoid employing some of its soft and hard power approaches towards some states concerning their norms and ideals. Some of the approaches may be challenging in African countries especially those with weak and unpopular governments, particularly as opposing nongovernmental forces become increasingly powerful and vocal. Chinese officials and academics often point out that in its engagement with Africa, China is “crossing the river by feeling the stones,” and to date, there have been adjustments of approach in response to popular African reactions.
Originally published in Modern Diplomacy