By David Monyae
Why do Africans seem to prefer or favour China? At a superficial level, it seems as if Africans only have relations with China, and other partners matter less. This perception emanates largely from Western capitals. It is a perception, rather than reality, driven by prejudice and fear of a rising China.
Regardless of the biased Africa-China relations reports, Africa’s relationship with China remains marginal compared with Africa’s relationship with developed countries. The main reasons behind Beijing’s perceived increased involvement in Africa are the dogmatic beliefs in the post-cold war period that Africa’s embrace of liberal democracy leads to development.
Despite the massive injection of resources to promote democracy in Africa by Western countries, there are disappointing returns on investments. The promotion of liberal democracy without tangible developmental support for Africa such as favourable access to markets, trade, development of physical infrastructure, access to capital and education have forced the continent to seek alternative partners. Thus, China’s popularity in Africa comes from developed countries’ neglect of the continent.
Western countries engage Africa for different reasons. Europe’s focus is mainly motivated by the need to halt African migrants into the EU.
And the US has a president with even less respect for Africa and its people. Its main objective is to limit China and Russia’s diplomatic and economic investments in Africa.
In their quest for development, Africans entered into strategic partnerships with the major powers all over the world.
African leaders realised that for the continent to maintain respectable economic growth and development they required assistance and lessons from those that had achieved development.
What China has been consistently doing in its relationship with Africa since the formation of the Forum on China and Africa Co-operation is to show a serious commitment to implement its pledges.
Africans realise that liberal democracy cannot prosper in the absence of development. What attracts Africans to China is the need for market access, physical infrastructure and learning from the successful programmes and policies of uplifting millions from poverty achieved by China.
Like the US in the 1960s, China is making impressive progress in science and technology, innovation, space and maritime issues.
Strategy and tactics guide Africans in their approach towards China. The lesson for developed countries is that liberal democracy cannot be parachuted into Africa without a developmental agenda. When Africa embraces China, it does not inversely mean the rejection of Western countries and liberal democracy. Africa needs both China and the developed countries.
It is in this context that Africa will continue seeking close relations with all countries. Western countries should realise that there is no need to compete with China in Africa or to advance propaganda against China in Africa through the media. Africa does not always achieve its strategic partnership with China, because AU objectives are implemented at member state level. At times, member states’ direct engagement with Beijing contradicts the AU’s objectives.
Chinese involvement on the continent is starting to register positive results. A classic example is China’s engagement with Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Rwanda and Egypt. There might be challenges in these countries’ engagements with China, but tangible physical infrastructure and investments in manufacturing is improving lives in Africa.
Western countries can achieve similar results if they take Africa and Africans as serious partners not sheer subjects.
* David Monyae is a senior political analyst at the University of Johannesburg.