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Prepare for future of symmetrical ties

Updated: 2013-01-25 11:59
By Zhang Chun ( China Daily)

China can be proud of its 60-year Africa partnership, but two sides can still build on it

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation last year did some stock taking of the Sino-African relationship and came up with a short to medium-term plan on how it can be made even stronger. The idea was to ensure that both sides have a clear idea of where they are and where they want to be.

Over the past 60 years the relationship has developed from a one-dimensional one to a multi-dimension one, that being achieved through the support of governments and institutions, in particular the forum, founded 12 years ago. There are three aspects to this transition.

First, the China-Africa relationship is gradually being transformed from one predicated largely on shared emotional and ideological attachments to one that takes appropriate account of economic interests. Trade between China and Africa rose 16 fold to $160 billion between 2000 and 2011 and is expected to have reached $200 billion in 2012. In 2011 total investment in Africa was worth $15 billion and aid was worth $110 billion.

At the same time, emotional and ideological intimacy has faded for various reasons, including leadership changes on both sides and increasing people-to-people exchanges, and that has left economic interest at the forefront.

The second transition, flowing from the first, concerns the nature of the economic relationship. Whereas the order of the day used to be to promote economic interests, it is now to protect those interests. There are several reasons for this.

China's strategy known as "going global" has been a huge success, but it has also thrown up problems that have called for fine-tuning. Though the world is at relative peace, there are still serious instabilities and disturbances in Africa, and they constitute one of the greatest obstacles for international investment and trade and humanitarian aid.

When the so-called Arab Spring took hold in early 2011, the importance of protecting China's overseas economic interests and citizens became clearer. Adhering to that priority will be highly important in China's foreign policy, particularly as it relates to Africa.

While the above two transitions are a fait accompli, the third will happen in the next few years or a decade. At present the China-Africa relationship is asymmetrical: China depends more on African natural resources, and Africa depends more on strategic, but not necessarily economic, opportunities that China's rise and increasing engagement in Africa offer. However, some developments are pushing this relationship toward symmetry.

One is China's slowing economy, which grew about 7.5 percent in the first quarter of last year. But as China slows, Africa is rising; six African countries were on the list of the 10 fastest-growing countries in the first decade of the 21st century, and seven are on the list for the period 2011-15.

African countries are now positioning the continent to assert its combined strength, establishing formal working groups with Japan, India, South Korea and Turkey.

China, aware of the evolutionary changes taking place in its relationship with Africa, is modifying its policies accordingly. It is shifting development aid for Africa from hard infrastructure to infrastructure of the soft kind. The past three ministerial conferences of the China-Africa forum bear this out. The conferences in Beijing in 2006 and Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in 2009 included eight measures for promoting Sino-Africa relations, much of them support for infrastructure in Africa, such as roads and conference centers. By contrast, the most recent conference, in Beijing in July 2012, attached greater importance to education, people-to-people exchanges and joint research programs.

China is also attaching greater importance to security. In July it was announced that there will be a China-Africa peace and security partnership. China will provide financial support for peace-keeping missions and for training more officials in peace and security affairs and peacekeepers for the African Union. At the moment China is involved in six of seven UN peacekeeping operations in Africa, sending more than 1,500 peacekeepers, which makes it the biggest contributor of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

In its efforts to promote a symmetrical relationship, China is keen to support sustainable development rather than to scout for natural resources. At the conference in July, President Hu Jintao said China will expand cooperation in investment and financing to support sustainable development in Africa and support African integration and help the continent improve its capacity for development.

That includes: supporting the Millennium Development Goals, the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program, the Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa and the Presidential Infrastructure Championing Initiative; extending aid-for-trade to African countries; increasing the China-Africa Development Fund to $5 billion; and implementing the African Talents Program.

Nevertheless, even though the Beijing conference in July properly recognized and dealt with the changes that are taking place in the Africa-China relationship, there remains an urgent need for longer-term planning that will keep the relationship robust and on course.

As a first step, China needs to build a stronger social basis for the relationship. China should do more to strengthen the work of NGOs and private groups, nurturing, better marshaling and drawing on the resources of public diplomacy.

Second, China needs to make concrete contributions to African peace and security. At the moment it is armed with a blueprint for peace and security cooperation but lacks a detailed strategy and plan to back that up. On the other hand, in such initiatives there is a risk of China departing from its principle of non-interference. China needs comprehensive strategic planning for such an initiative, with multilateral institutions as the main platform.

Finally, China needs to put its shoulder to the wheel to prepare a future of symmetrical interdependence between itself and Africa. As it does that it can continue to learn lessons from Western failure and from the successes China has enjoyed.

The prospects are bright, but the journey will be long.

The author is deputy director, Center for West Asian and African Studies, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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