Over the past decade, China has expanded its diplomatic, economic and political activities in many nations. China’s presence is more pronounced in the African continent, as the country seeks to develop closer geopolitical partnershipswith African states. Unlike the West that has little, if any, history of cooperation with China, Chinese leaders believe that given Africa’s longstanding political history with China, the continent offers immense opportunities for future partnerships (Nye, 2004, p.31). This has been viewed as some kind of generalization and exceptionalism of China’s activities in Africa.
Based on various theoretical concepts and perspectives, this paper examines China as a major geo-economic and geo-political player, and establishes the similarities and differences of China’s operations in Africa with those of Western nations intervening in Africa. This is anchored on China’s political-economy perspective, a strategy that China has successfully employed to progress its foreign policy internationally. ThisChinese strategy on cooperation is largely different from the Western notion which views ‘development’ as a separate policy area. It’s no doubt China’s approach has been viewed as a threat to ‘aid’ and democratic governance. A side from aid industry, this paper will focus on China’s geopolitics, especially its relations with African nations and how this has altered the Africa’s relations with the West, with regard to development.
China’s Foreign Policy
The rapid growth of China has involved concerted efforts from Chinese leaders and strategists. Much reforms on its foreign policy brought China closer to other nations bilaterally and multilaterally. This resulted to a shift in its development agenda both at a national level and internationally. Although China’s strategists claim the ‘new’ vision of development is founded on peaceful cooperation, some observers hold different thoughts; they see it as some form of neo-liberalism, not a purely growth-oriented strategy. In Africa, states endowed with mineral resources have become the central focus of China’s foreign policy, to supply China with raw materials for its rapid growth. As such, China has been seen as preoccupied with business, rather than ideology, a form of coercive power termed ‘soft power’ (Juma, 2009, p 89.). Some observers like Alden (2007, p.41) note that China’s promise of technical assistance and unconditional aid is irresistible to African ,nations who have forthwith entered into bilateral agreements and signed major engineering contracts with China. The pillars of its foreign policy are that of non-interference in local affairs and respect to sovereignty, aspects that appeal to autocratic regimes.
The emergence of China as an alternative development partner for African nations has radically altered the global geopolitical landscape including trade, production and investment. China’s rapid growth and high demand for raw materials, capital and energy has pushed up the value of exports, with far reaching implications on the African economy (Dickson 2003, p.51). Its massive investment projects and aid in Africa has not been taken as an ‘offensive’ by Western policy strategists, who regard the aid with a lot of skepticism. They argue that the lack of political conditions will place African nations in great debt and affect democratic development, hence regard it as “a threat to sustainable economic development” (Wang 2003, p.155). Other observers even argue that China is turning out to be a neo-colonial power (Wang 2003, p.157), where resources from Africa are exported to China and returned as value-added goods, thereby bringing about economic inequality between the two partners. China’s foreign policy approach also raises political questions over its model of development; while many African leaders view it as relevant, Western leaders see it as contradicting the American model as well as the conditions of the Bretton Woods (Tull 2006, p.477). This model of global interaction is both problematic and contradictory, depending on which perspective it’s looked at.
International Relations (IR) Theories: China’s Perspective
The connection between international relations theories and China’s development discourse brings to the fore the dynamics of IR especially with Africa as the subject. Recent IR approaches contradict the traditional ‘Western’ perspective, which was increasingly viewed as ‘top-down ethnocentric’ approach (Stiglitz 2006, p.22), which gained much criticism over its misconception of development priorities especially in Africa. Taylor (2006, p 56 ) observes that international relations is still conceived in the perspective of “American Social Science” (p.21), which focuses on North-American and European geopolitics and ignores four-fifths of the world’s population. The heavily Anglo-American centric and bias is different from the Orientalist approach (Schoeman2007) that aims at restructuring international relations in Africa by demystifying the notion of nation-states.
According to Brown (2006, p.126), in Africa, the conventional conception of nation-states (neorealism) is largely non-existent; thus, western IR cannot reveal the geopolitical dynamics of the African continent. Brown goes on to argue that, in contrast, European states are clearly delimited; an aspect that makes IR applicable to them (2006, p,122). Moreover, Africa’s young democracy needs a different IR, which separates issues of sovereignty from the nation-state. Brown (2006, p.121) disagrees with this; he argues that neorealism and the use of European state as a standard is erroneous and only serves to marginalize the African continent from mainstream geopolitics.
In contrast, Chinese perspectives to modern IR have changed the traditional understanding of engagement with African nations. An important aspect regarding China’s foreign policy lies in its strong connection with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Phillips 2006, p.2). In examining IR, from a Chinese perspective, Zhang (2006) describes three distinct schools of thought; first, there are those who believe that Chinese strategists ‘imported’ Western ideologies relating to IR, while another school of thought seek to develop Chinese IR from a Marxist-Leninism perspective, termed as neo-communists (Harvey 2005, p.52). This, according to Zhang (2006, p 65), fails to give any new perspective as an increasingly “Maoist orthodoxy is diluted by world-systems theory” (p.34). The third school of thought seeks to focus on IR that is specific to China’s development history and thus support a perspective that is unique to Chinese experience (King 2007, p.340). This has the potential to develop an appropriate IR theory that befits China.
An example of China’s IR is the ‘tianxia’ that is founded on China’s national history (Friedmann2009, p.4) and seen as a way to guide foreign policy. A key element of this notion is ‘befriending’ enemies, which however, in another context, can mean cooperation with ‘similar’ states, a contradiction to the colonial approach assumed by European states. While the current world order is credited to the West, and particularly the US, which holds a dominant position in international affairs, China’s foreign policy appears to pursue development. Nevertheless, as Gill andHuang (2006) argue, “Today’s geopolitics do not allow imperialist approach” (p.17); rather, a departure from past approaches to development-oriented actions.
China’s Political Economy in Africa
The China-Africa interactions impact greatly the economies of Africa states. In the globalization era, the global economy is changing fast. Naim, (2007, p 32) characterizes the global economy as transforming from Keynesian “developmentalism”, a response to the 19th Century crises that involved state-led redistributive policy, to globalism (p.96). Globalism encompasses neo-liberalism ideology to address the challenges of social protectionism, which has strengthens institutions and empowered some nation-states. The new capitalism phenomenon has been a feature of neo-liberalism in the era of globalization.
Nevertheless, the notion that China embraces neo-liberalism is often contended, largely because neoliberalism, in the traditional sense, means strict market conditions, which is lacking in Chinese experience (Nordtveit 2009, p.158). In contrast, Palat (2008) contends that China lacks the will to implement neoliberalism wholly preferring to implement it gradually in the interest of national stability (p.731). He characterizes the Chinese approach as labor-friendly and de-centered; an approach of wealth accumulation as opposed to dispossession. Palat (2008) implies that China’s “market society” appeals to most nations, creating collaborations based on economic development. In other words, the China’s development-oriented strategy is attractive to most African nations as it promises to eliminate global economic inequalities, a notion often contended by Western strategists.
It can also be argued that China’s policies rather than being ‘neo-liberal’ is basically capitalist, propagated by post-Mao administration, which fundamentally suits the West, but occasionally is castigated in the global arena (Sautman 2006, p.3). Its authoritarian rule is often criticized in the West, as it counters the idea of neoliberalism. The aim of the neoliberalism, which is “hybrized” in China’s context, is to ensure the preservation of the sovereignty and power of the nation-state and that of ruling political regime. This raises much criticism from the West, but appears attractive to African states, areas formerly within geopolitical spheres of the West.
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