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Foreign Policy

What’s Behind Xi’s Visit to Africa?

Mar 28 , 2013

This Spring, Xi Jinping is paying a visit to Africa. Besides attending the fifth BRICS summit, he will also visit Tanzania and the Republic of Congo. On his first trip abroad as Chinese President, Xi is clearly demonstrating the significance that the new Chinese leaders attach to China-Africa relations, as well as to the cooperation among emerging economies such as among BRICS.

In his speech at the Julius Nyerere International Convention Center in Dar es Salaam, President Xi said that Africa is in a new era of hope and development, and that the African lion is galloping. He vowed that China will intensify, not weaken its efforts to develop relations with Africa, and that China will always be sincere to its African friends. His brief statement contained three important messages. First, although Africa has gone through complicated and profound changes; as well as the test of the Cote d’Ivoire civil war, the South Sudan independence, a war in Libya, the North African turmoil, and civil wars in Mali and the Central African Republic, China remains confident of Africa’s development. Second, based on optimism and confidence in the African situation and its future development, China will continue strengthening and advancing its relationship with Africa. Third, China’s policy towards Africa will stay on the track of sincerity, friendship, and cooperation with less empty talk and more practical work. During Xi’s visit to Tanzania, the two sides signed cooperation MOUs for about a dozen infrastructure projects, including the construction of a modern port at Bagamoyo with an investment budget of 10 billion USD, and a total budget comparable with that of TAZARA. The project will be rather comprehensive, with a distribution center, a development area, and other facilities. After completion, it will be an important port and trade hub linking Tanzania with China, the Middle East, and Europe.

In the past decade, with the robust institutional platform of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the relationship has grown rapidly. China and Africa have not only exchanged frequent high-level visits, enhanced communication and cooperation in international affairs; but also developed and consolidated cooperation and exchanges in the fields of national security, economy, trade, finance, science, culture, education, human resources training, and people-to-people exchanges. The rapid growth in the bilateral relationship has been the result of concerted effort and hard work by both sides. Even though it is often observed through the Western media’s magnifying lens, and attacked as a form of Chinese neo-colonialism, the China-Africa relationship has moved steadily and rapidly forward despite interferences. This is because both China and Africa regard one another as offering development opportunity and underpinning their respective external strategies. China needs Africa, and vice versa. It is a widely held view among African friends that the development of China poses no threat to Africa, but rather offers important opportunities for its development. They believe that, in the extraction of natural resources in Africa, China differs from the West by providing infrastructure construction and a large investment as an exchange. The rapid growth of China in the past three decades has convinced them that Africa should no longer view the European and American model as the sole solution. Africa must strengthen its economic relations and trade with China and other emerging economies so as to grow with them. Chinese participation in African affairs is also seen as the newest historic opportunity, maybe the last one, for African development, which Africa must seize rather than miss out on.

Some see similarity between Xi’s visit to Africa and the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia” strategy. It appears that China is trying to counter the American encirclement of China in Asia by pivoting towards Africa. For some pessimistic African media, big countries are engaging in a third round of contention over Africa (the first one was during the 1884 Berlin Conference and the second during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union), and the key players this time are the US and China (France also plays a very important role and Brazil, India and Turkey are all trying to expand their influence). According to them, as the US and China compete for influence in Africa, there are increasing signs that these two countries may someday resort to arms in Africa.

It is fair to say that such concern is understandable, but remains far-fetched. In the past decade, with greater economic strength, emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil have gained the ability and money to invest in and provide assistance to African countries. The Africans also want to draw upon the experience and lessons of emerging countries. Such cooperation is based on equality and mutual respect, and therefore fundamentally different from the fight over Africa during the Berlin Conference and the Cold War. Although there is commercial competition based on market economic rules with the US, China does not hold any military presence in Africa and its foreign policy follows the principle of non-interference in internal affairs. China has always stressed that its relationship with Africa is inclusive and open, not rejecting or targeting any third party. When Chinese leaders visit Africa, they never make any negative comments on other countries’ presence in Africa (, in which aspect the US indeed needs reflection and second-thought).

As far as China-US relations and the two countries’ interests in Africa are concerned, cooperation remains the general trend. It is far from from the Cold War situation where the US and Soviet Union fought proxy wars. The idea that the “US and China may someday resort to arms in Africa” may well remain a prophecy forever.

He Wenping is a Researcher & Director of African Research at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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