Plenty of coverage and research in the West has suggested that, after an initial “honeymoon period”, China is now struggling to adjust to complexities wrought by the dramatic expansion in its ties with African states. Investments are not yielding promised returns. There has been a litany of kidnappings and attacks on Chinese workers. The perception of cozy ties between Beijing and “pariah” regimes has brought international reputational costs. Pressure from trade unions and civil society is forcing Chinese companies to rethink labor and environmental practices. From the heady days of the 2006 China-Africa summit, the relationship now appears to be characterized by mounting problems and growing doubts.
The widespread presumption is that China is going through a “learning” experience in Africa. After initially trying to stake out a different approach to the continent, it is now predictably gravitating towards the models and frameworks through which the more “experienced” West has come to structure its interactions with African states. The more distinctive aspects of China’s approach in Africa – such as the policy of “non-interference” in another state’s internal affairs or its refusal to attach “conditions” to aid – are now thought subject to change. China’s lending institutions and major enterprises are signing up to international CSR agreements and collaborating on joint projects in Africa with Western companies. Official engagement and dialogue aim to gradually draw China into webs of Western-shaped multilateral security and development cooperation. China, according to this analysis, is on a path towards adopting the dispositions and concerns of a “northern” power in Africa.
There is certainly plenty of awareness in China about the difficulties it faces in Africa. Beneath the diplomatic rhetoric, policymakers are quite open about the problems faced by the government, many of which stem from managing the growing number of Chinese actors – from large state-owned enterprises to individual entrepreneurs – now active in Africa. Streams of publications by domestic research institutes debate how to improve Chinese policy in Africa, tackling subjects such as enhancing soft power, lowering trade tensions, ensuring the better targeting of aid, and looking at how to widen forms of communication beyond the state-state level. This is a clearly a period of flux as China reflects on its approach to Africa.
Whilst willing to learn from aspects of the West’s engagement of Africa, China remains nevertheless deeply reluctant to fully embrace existing practices and norms. This is partly about retaining competitive advantage. Beijing is aware that most African states have welcomed China’s rise as an opportunity to break out of the donor monopoly imposed by the established powers. But it is also about China’s identity as a fellow “developing” country and an old practitioner of “south-south cooperation”. China’s “Africa hands” will in conversation stress the continuities between existing and past policy, referencing the considerable assistance given by China to Africa in the 1960s and drawing on a language of political solidarity that has its roots in Maoist “Third Worldism”. These traditions and discourse remain constitutive even though China is now an essentially status quo actor rather than a fomenter of global revolution.
This should caution against assuming that engagement of China will lead to convergence on the West’s terms. I do not see any great shift in China’s policy of non-interference considering the “business as usual” approach it took to recent coups in Guinea, Madagascar and Niger. There remains only perfunctory interest in joining the types of donor groupings that develop policies of aid conditionality. Analysts I have spoken to suggest the drive is instead towards building greater capabilities and know-how on Africa lest China finds itself otherwise subsumed within Western thinking and practice. A new think-tank on Sino-African affairs has been established and the Beijing-based International Poverty Reduction Center continues to expand, annually training dozens of high-level African officials in the “lessons” to be learned from China’s experience of economic development. Changes may be coming to China’s Africa policy, but they are unlikely to be in the direction that the West wants or expects.