Africa may see greater cooperation with China as an opportunity for growth and prosperity. Indications are the China-Africa trade regime seems to function on an equal footing - there is nothing in available research that would proove the contrary. One could say China is behaving like the former Cold War powers in providing aid to a region in support of its interests.
However, it is difficult to see how China, with its record of human rights violations and suppression of religious and political freedoms, can help African countries improve good governance unless they pay close attention to these issues.
On numerous occasions, we hear Chinese officials saying: "we separate our economic and political policy... one has nothing to do with the other." However, providing military equipment to questionable regimes is interfering in domestic politics if the country is in a civil war, or interferes with foreign policy, should the current government be under sanctions? Admittedly, China is not the first nation to provide arms to countries in times of civil war, Western countries have done so particularly during the Cold War.
However, one strong point remains: if China is not accountable to anyone politically, what would make it accountable in the economic sphere? The issue with Chinese forced labour, piracy and its support to questionable African regimes strengthen this point. Lawlessness is prevelant in many African countries where China established or is establishing its presence. However, there are some things that China can do in order to provide transparency in its dealings with African countries.
During the recent visit of the US President Barack Obama's to China and the show of U.S.-Chinese goodwill, Obama's pledge to treat China as a trusted global partner won a return promise of shared efforts to solve the world's problems. But not much else. President Obama's first visit to China underscored a shifting balance of power: "The U.S. has a lot to ask from China," said Xue Chen, a researcher on strategic affairs at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. "On the other hand, the U.S. has little to offer China." Obama's outreach here continued the type of pragmatic bridge-building he has used in Europe and the Middle East in hopes of earning goodwill that will produce payoffs down the road. Will this development benefit Africa? Will the two giants moving closer to being equals, as one observer put it, be in Africa's interest?
1. Firstly, both nations may include stricter requirements in their trade agreements that advocate and promote transparency.
2. Secondly, they may also follow their fellow members on the UN Security Council in dealing with sanctions against countries that do not follow the rules. China's support of the Sudanese government and its abstaining on the Security Council resolution to sanction Sudan for its human rights violations in Darfur is a case in point. Surely there is a way in which China can maintain its economic interests while at the same time encouraging sound governance policies?
3. Thirdly, instead of ignoring the bad policies of leaders, they could make sure that any monies earmarked for progress are spent accordingly.
In this respect, trade between China and Africa and the resulting earnings from either side should go into building the capacity of each individual government to take care of their own agendas.
At the same time, African governments are responsible for ignoring the principles of good governance in their own countries. And if they insist on dealing with China on the basis of sound principles, they should stick to their guns. Admittely weaker states will have the most problems with this.
One avenue for further research is China's involvement in peacekeeping and failed states such as Somalia. How influential is the Chinese peacekeeping contingent on the African continent? What exactly, if anything, is expected of governments in return for peacekeeping contingents?
The China-Africa economic regime is currently a trade-off of sorts in that the more a weak state is able to progress economically, the more likely it will be able to institute those principles needed for good governance. As China gains more power in Africa, it will increasingly become a major power player for countries in Africa and the Middle East to turn to as strategic allies.
Through this lens, in establishing closer ties to Africa, in one respect, China assists the African region in promoting economic development while at the same time setting up geo-political alliances so that it retains more of a global superpower status in the wake of the U.S. and Europe. Where this relationship will lead in the future remains to be seen, time will tell through further observation and research.
A much larger issue concern is who monitors Africa-China trade? The US and China are treating each other as equals, at least when it comes to trade. And, an even bigger question, how do we monitor all of the activity that takes place between China and Africa, particularly when it comes to smaller nations like Lesotho, Eritrea, Malawi, Benin, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and many more that are not strategically important to the West? How do we do this while at the same time monitoring how good governance is actually being applied, if at all, within the realm of development or economic growth in each individual country?
The leaders of these countries have embraced Chinese assistance with both hands and have not been mindful of the human security situations of their citizens. Is it investment or Chinese migration that we see from China to Africa? The Chinese in countries mentioned above are involved in small scale businesses that the citizens of those countries can do like selling merchandise along the streets in cities and towns. It is a large undertaking, but avenues for further research.
Finally, given the conflicting agendas, there is a danger that many African governments may misinterpret how far China is willing to accommodate them and at what expense.
Written by: Marcel R.D. Chirwa, Senior Research Fellow, Africa Peace Support Trainers' Association, ISS Addis Ababa Office