Courier magazine interview with Prof. Ian Taylor, Expert on “China-Africa relations: Lessons for the EU”

The Courier website. Ahead of the Shanghai Expo 2010, China (1 May to 31-October 2010), a showcase for all the globe’s nations, notably those of the African continent, The Courier magazine asked Professor Ian Taylor, an expert on China-Africa relations at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, whether Europe has any lessons to learn from China’s expanding ties with Africa.

“What is the nature of a typical agreement between China and an African nation?

Economic agreements (minerals are the big ones) are usually negotiated by the Chinese company with the authority in Africa. In some cases, there are indications that Chinese companies get an advantage through political support of the government. Infrastructure projects, for example, may be offered up alongside a particular deal where the Chinese company may potentially be granted a [minerals] contract. But this has also been overplayed in the [Western] media.

Where is China most present in the African continent?

If you look at China’s top 10 trading partners in the African continent, with the exception of South Africa (whose trade with China is more of a general nature), they are either mineral or  oil producers: Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville, Angola and Sudan.

Do you have a ball park figure for China’s trade with Africa?

China’s bilateral trade with Africa rose from $US5bn in 1997 and last year was $US106.8bn, an increase of 45 per cent on the previous year.

So Africa-China economic relations have not been affected by the economic crisis?

When the recession kicked in, everybody said the Chinese are going to leave Africa but they actually haven’t and have in fact stepped up a gear. Africa is extremely important to China because the Chinese government’s legitimacy nowadays is only based on economic growth, not ideology. A lot of this depends on inputs, particularly oil and other minerals, to propel the economy. One of the problems is that the relationship is the same type that Africa has had with Europe or the US; it is neo-colonial in the sense that China imports raw commodities like minerals and Africa imports manufactured goods.

Another criticism levelled at China is that unlike EU cooperation, its policy is not very principled, lacking both a human rights and poverty eradication focus

The Chinese position is simply that development comes first ahead of individual human rights. The Chinese authorities would argue that in providing infrastructure, you lay the groundwork for development. The human rights issue is one of the big weaknesses in China’s policy towards Africa. They argue that human rights is about development but in many African countries like Sudan and Zimbabwe, the governments themselves have undermined the development of their own people, so the Chinese position is not coherent because they argue that they are involved in development but they are also involved with some authorities with anti-development policies. China does, however, have a different approach to human rights to the West and this has to be understood.

Do you view China’s presence in Africa as positive or negative?

Overall, it’s positive. They are laying the ground for infrastructure projects. They have pushed up mineral prices and of course this can reinforce Africa’s dependency on primary commodities but that’s not China’s problem; it’s Africa’s problem. There are negatives, but I think that every country whether we are talking about the EU or the US has got negative aspects to its policies.

And the negatives of China’s presence in Africa?

It varies from country-to-country; space is potentially opened up for autocrats to find a new source of political support which frees them from having to fulfil government conditionalities. But the Chinese presence has re-focussed the minds of Western policymakers on Africa. The continent is emerging as the big issue in international relations. In Europe, we are so used to Africa being in our backyards and in our sphere of influence, but perhaps the rise of China and others in Africa like India, Brazil, Turkey and Israel is good for Africa as it re-focuses on the continent and makes us [in the West] re-think our policies.

Does the EU have anything to learn from the way that China conducts its policy to Africa?

The Chinese would say that they have been responsive to the African governments’ requirements on infrastructure, whereas the Europeans have been more focussed on things that come after development like individual human rights. The main handicap for the EU is that it is just not united when it comes to policy. There are EU policy documents on Africa but what actually happens on the ground is that France does this and the UK does that. This undermines the coherence of a European policy.

Is there scope for EU-China-Africa triangular relations?

A lot of ink has been spilt on the concept of tripartite talks between the three actors by the EU, but I don’t see the other two buying into it. It is very much European driven. Policymakers in Europe are going to have to get used to the idea that Africa is no longer their exclusive sphere of influence and that there are new actors. China is the first one but there are others: India, Brazil, Malaysia, and particularly in the past two years, Iran.

Where are relations heading?

Trade will keep on growing but the danger is that it is not sustainable as it is based on minerals and there is no real evidence of industrialisation in Africa as part of this relationship. This has been the case in Africa since independence. There is a danger that China will reinforce what the West has been doing for the last forty years or so. But as long as the Chinese economy continues to grow and needs inputs and as long as Africa has them, I think this relationship will carry on.”

Professor Taylor’s latest publication is: ‘China’s New Role in Africa’ published by Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2010. A new book on Africa’s international relations is out in April 2010 and a book on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation will be coming out later this year.

He is also Joint Professor at China’s Renmin University, Honorary Professor at Zhejiang Normal University, China and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Debra Percival


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