Dispelling the Myths of China's Presence in Africa

Dispelling the Myths of China’s Presence in Africa

Deborah Bräutigam answers questions after her talk “China in Africa: Think Again.”

Today the most important bilateral relationship in the world is between the US and China. President Jimmy Carter’s “one China” policy led to the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries. More than 30 years later, the two countries exert great influence on global issues ranging from economics and security to climate change and health. From November 10 through 12, The Carter Center’s China Program and Emory University’s Halle Institute held a “Forum on US-China Relations” that brought together leaders and scholars from the two countries to discuss the future of bilateral relations and, more specifically, the need to balance competition with cooperation. To the surprise of some, Africa was a central focus of discussion.

In November 2006, the first Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation drew international attention to China’s growing influence in Africa. At that point, China was on a fast track to become the African continent’s largest trading partner, outpacing countries such as Britain and the United States. Western media reported on the multi-billion dollar loans for infrastructure development that would be repaid with national resources, China’s engagement with authoritarian rulers shunned by many other governments, and concerns about labor and human rights. China’s growing presence in Africa also challenged Western norms of foreign assistance and development. When former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Africans to beware of China’s growing ties on the continent and “a new colonialism,” the stage seemed set for Africa to once again be the site of competition between global powers. 

Experts attending the US-China forum had more nuanced views about ties among African countries, China, and the US. In a presentation sponsored by Emory’s IDN, Deborah Bräutigam, director of the International Development Program at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Dragon’s Gift, cautioned that the US is not taking an evidence-based approach to understanding China’s involvement in Africa. According to Bräutigam, China’s history of secrecy around its aid and investments has fueled rumors and speculation, often making it difficult to gauge the risks and opportunities provided by China’s growing engagement.

In her work, Bräutigam engages myths and realities about China’s role in Africa as well as explains what the Chinese are doing, how they do it, how much money is involved, and how it all fits into their global investment/development strategy. For example, Bräutigam discredited the myth that the Chinese are just interested in Africa in order to extract natural resources, often dealing with tyrannical dictators in order to do so. Even though Chinese companies, like Western firms, are certainly interested in natural resources in countries ruled by unsavory regimes, the majority of their economic partnerships are with stable, democratic countries such as South Africa, Ghana, and Mauritius, where they have invested in banks, factories, telecoms and small shops. In fact, China’s largest investment—of $5.4 billion—is for a 20 percent share in South Africa’s Standard (Chartered) Bank. She also discredits the predominant facts and figures often used to  frame Sino-African relations as threatening—namely the inaccuracies around the inflated amount of Chinese aid that is given as well as the amount of land “grabbed” by China and India in Africa.  Bräutigam also cautioned that inflating the challenge from China could be just as dangerous as underestimating it.

Another panel, on “US-China in Africa: Adapting to Changing Norms and Finding Paths of Convergence,” focused on African countries as sites of existing and future cooperation between the US and China. Here Deborah Bräutigam identified common challenges facing both countries working in Africa around issues of transparency, corruption, intervention, and development cooperation. Joyce Msuya, coordinator for East Asia and the Pacific Region at the World Bank Institute in Beijing was optimistic about tripartite cooperation among African governments, the US, and China in the areas of corporate social responsibility, the distribution of aid in humanitarian emergencies and scholarly exchange. However, she cautioned that cooperative efforts must be “demand driven,” based on requests from African governments. Haifang Liu, deputy director of the Center for African Studies at Peking University, said that China’s involvement in Africa has helped China synthesize its own development experience and predicted that, as a great power, China would need to go beyond investment to become a donor. Although the panelists were generally positive about US-China cooperation in Africa, they also cautioned against viewing the continent as a testing ground for great power cooperation.

Histories of colonialism and the Cold War have made many Africans wary about great power involvement.  As more and more African countries adopt democratic processes and experience robust economic growth, they must be seen as equal partners in cooperative initiatives that address African-defined issues and priorities.