As China increasingly fast tracks its political, economic and trade ties with Africa, US politicians and think tanks have viewed the developments with mixed reactions. Although some see China’s rising influence in Africa as a major competitor, or even a “threat,” to Western interests as a whole on the continent, it is also encouraging to see the increasing appeal in the US for cooperation rather than competition, or confrontation, between China and the US.
On the China side, both the official policy and academic debate on this issue are positive, clear and open. As China’s Africa Policy, the white paper published in January 2006, says: “China will step up cooperation with other countries and international organizations to support the development of Africa and help realize Millennium Development Goals in Africa.” Also China’s Foreign Aid white paper, published in April 2011, says that “under the framework of South-South cooperation, China will work with all parties concerned to conduct complementary and fruitful trilateral and regional cooperation on the basis of respecting the needs of recipient countries and jointly promote the process of global poverty alleviation.” A majority of Chinese scholars are not against the idea of cooperation and are inclined to see that favourable Sino-US joint efforts can benefit Africa even more.
However, goodwill doesn’t naturally convert to real practice or lead to good results. In reality, it is hard to see any China-US collaboration in any fields or areas on the ground in Africa over recent years. So, what has been going wrong? How can we turn cooperation from “words” to “action”? In my opinion, before we explore the feasibility of any possible cooperation in Africa, there are “two musts” which need to be figured out in advance.
The first “must” is to create an atmosphere of friendly and mutual trust in the bilateral relationship between China and the US. Each side should understand the other's presence in Africa from a historical perspective. There is no doubt that China and the US are now the two primary players in Africa. In 2009, China surpassed the US to become Africa’s biggest trade partner. The value of bilateral trade rose quickly from US$10.5 billion in 2000 to US$126.9 billion in 2010. However, while strong in trade and finance, China’s influence in Africa in the areas of politics, military, security and links with local civil society, etc. remains much weaker than the US. In this sense, mutual respect rather than finger-pointing is critical for laying a foundation for any cooperation.
Being the sole superpower in the world, the extent of US national interests is much longer and bigger than any other countries. The fundamental interests and concerns of the US include not only its global anti-terror strategy but also the stability and safety of resources supply. China respects the United State's legitimate interests in Africa. At the same time, the US should understand the unique Chinese pattern of Sino-African cooperation by looking at it from the perspective of both historic development and results. Being the largest developing country, socialist country and regional power that suffered colonial invasion in its past, China highly values the principles of “equality,” “sovereignty” and “non-interference.” With its own economic and social transformation occurring within a single generation without copying or imitating Western models, China firmly believes that it will do no good to impose its own model on others or attach conditions for giving help.
So the establishment of a friendly and mutual atmosphere of trust needs to respect the different approaches of each party and the concerns they hold. It is easy to label dealings in Africa as “neo-colonialism” but it is a dangerous way to promote cooperation.
The second "must” is to treat Africa’s interests as a priority and to leave Africa in the driver’s seat. As US-China cooperation is not merely a bilateral thing, it should prioritise Africa’s development as the starting point and be fully considerate of its interests and the advantages it needs from trilateral cooperation. African involvement and participation from the very beginning of a trilateral relationship is an imperitive. And Africa should be treated as an equal partner and stakeholder instead of an object to be preyed upon.
Frankly speaking, we are not so sure whether “closer cooperation between China and the United States is not something to be feared, but welcomed, by Africa.” Given the painful memories of about a hundred years of colonial rule and the USSR-US “fierce competition and confrontation” in Africa during the Cold War, the relatively fragmented, fragile and weak continent is fearful of a powerful outside stakeholder adopting a “unite and rule” approach (similar to the “divide and rule” mantra of colonial times).
There is strong African opinion, supported and highly praised by Prof. Adams B. Bodomo, a Ghanaian now teaching in the University of Hong Kong, that the “win-win-win” hypothesis from the cooperation of Africa, China and the US is a fallacy. It maintains the belief that Africa is better off championing its own agenda and dealing bilaterally with one outside power bloc at a time, rather than concurrently risking two blocs which are likely to collude to promote their joint interests at Africa’s peril. Given this rich and vast continent, Africa seems to prefer to deal with all investors bilaterially. With more bargaining power at hand, it would like to see itself at the centre of the action, presenting a level-playing field and an equal opportunity for all investors.
Some may say there is too much suspicion behind African concerns but it has to be acknowledged that there are also differences and suspicions between China and the US. History tells us that building trust, particularly between strong and weak, big and small, countries, takes longer time. The stronger, such as the US and China, should transcend their differences and suspicions and spare no effort to achieve a “win-win-win” result in dealing with African affairs. In the early stages, education and public hygiene could be a good entry point for proving that trilaterial cooperation can benefit African people. China and the US can cooperate in providing teaching facilities and educators and advise on establishing a primary, secondary and tertiary education network. They could also consider an arrangement whereby the US provides capital for building hospitals and China supplies medical professionals to train African doctors and nurses to fight disease.
After all, where there is a will, there is a way. But before moving substantively toward trilaterial cooperation, we should unload some historical burdens, build mutual respect for each other’s interests in Africa, and include African participation as much as possible in achieving in-country development and prosperity.
He Wenping is professor and director of the African Studies Section of the Institute of West Asian & African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).