360° Analysis

Old-World Consorting: China, Africa, and the EU


September 25, 2012 12:09 EDT

China’s economic relation with Africa is forcing the EU to rethink its strategy towards the continent.

China and the European Union: Relations and Perceptions with Africa

Sino-African trade relations are becoming stronger by the day – this is now an indisputable fact.  However, because there is a discrepancy between their interests and positions, the concerned parties all view and evaluate this fact very differently. The Chinese government believes “that this new type of Sino-African strategic partnership relation is the result of the passing of the torch of traditional Sino-African friendship and, in accordance with Chinese and African basic mutual interests, conforms to the current era’s trend of peace, development, and cooperation”. On the other hand some European media organizations and government employees consider the influence of China’s continual expansion into Africa to be the manifestation of “neocolonialism”. This sort of bifurcation is not difficult to understand. When it comes to the abrupt rise of China, Africa represents a new marketplace and new opportunities. Whilst on the European front considering the traditional culture and economy already existing in Africa, China’s arrival poses a threat to Europe’s political ties with Africa and their current positions and vested interests within the region.

The discrepancy between Chinese and European interests in Africa has led some analysts to worry that this may lead to friction and maybe conflict. However Anna Katharina Stahl, in an article published in the European Foreign Affairs Review, pointed out that this sort of worry is truly unnecessary. In her opinion, some of the new practices adopted by China in Africa will not only drive the EU to integrate and harmonize on pertinent issues, but will also encourage the EU to reexamine and reconsider their own relations within Africa. Furthermore, the possibility of initiating cooperation between China and Europe in Africa will also consequently increase.

In taking a look through history, Stahl points out that although China is viewed by many as a “newcomer” in mainland Africa, a bond between China and Africa has in fact existed for quite some time. Although China has never declared suzerainty over an African state and has previously shared with Africa the identity of being a ‘third world country’. Whilst also Africa was considered by China to be an important ideological front during the Cold War.

In comparison to the EU nations that have traditionally had relations within Africa, the extent of China’s close economic cooperation with Africa is still far inferior. Since the advent of the 21st century even though Sino-African trade has witnessed extraordinary growth goods imported to or exported from China only accounted for 10% of Africa’s total foreign trade in 2007, whereas over 40% of Africa’s imports and exports were bought from or sold to nations of the EU. Moreover up until 2009 Africa’s total trade with China still came to only about one third of Africa’s total trade with the EU.

However, although there exists a disparity in volume of trade, Stahl found that China’s enthusiasm  towards the development of cooperative economic relations with Africa far surpassed that of the EU. Traditionally EU-African trade relations have for the most part operated in the private sector, last year however the EU committee responsible for industrial and corporate development publicly stated that they were lacking the necessary means to directly stimulate or actively encourage European companies to invest in Africa.  In sharp contrast, the Chinese government attaches the highest importance to investment in Africa. Not only through opening a forum for Sino-African cooperation to foster closer ties with the governments of African nations, but also by actively encouraging Chinese companies to “go forth” to Africa and seek opportunities for development.  Furthermore, in contrast to the EU nations, China prefers to uphold Zhou Enlai’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence by refusing to meddle in Africa’s internal politics. For instance some African government employees who are harshly condemned by the EU are nonetheless able to receive warm welcomes in China. These political factors will undoubtedly have a great influence on the direction of the development of economic cooperation. 

What influence will the increasingly intimate Sino-African trade relations have on the role of the EU in African regional politics? 

Stahl believes that the economic and political strategies adopted by China in Africa are diametrically opposite to the traditional methods of the member nations of the EU, and that this has initiated change in EU’s strategy towards Africa. First of all, in response to ever-strengthening Sino-African trade relations the EU has begun to formulate a more comprehensive African strategy.  Traditionally, the EU has never had a single framework for cooperation with Africa, but employed different frameworks for building cooperative relations with South Africa, other Sub-Saharan nations, and North Africa. However, since cooperation between African countries has intensified due to the influence of the Chinese model, the EU has gradually begun to consider Africa as one single entity. Through this process, the differences between the policies, interests, and values of the various EU organizations will gradually diminish.

Secondly, in order to pose a challenge to China the different member countries of the EU have begun to coordinate their actions in Africa. Traditionally, England and France, along with other EU nations with their own individual interests have been more willing to develop bilateral relations with their former colonies, which seldom benefit other member countries of the EU.  But in the wake of China’s increasing impact upon Africa, these originally individually minded European nations have begun to realize the limitations of their existing strategies and have become more inclined to cooperate as the European Union and jointly defend their interests in Africa. Consequently, nations such as Germany that did not originally have particularly close ties to Africa are now provided with the opportunity to acquire more raw materials as a member state of the EU.

Since China has not established any pre-conditions with regards to the issue of cooperative trade development in Africa, the EU has now considered increasing consistency amongst the policies in its different spheres in order to increase cooperation in African countries. Traditionally, EU’s policies for development involve economic cooperation and require the partner to accept certain norms and values. In practice some EU member countries are unable to break free of the influence of  colonial mentality and do not treat African countries equally.  However, the rapidly deepening Sino-African cooperation has led the  EU to view African nations less and less as “southern hemisphere backwaters” or “aid receivers” and more  as “cooperative partners” and “property locales”.

While the EU adjusts its tactics with regard to Africa it is also beginning to ponder its cooperative efforts in China. In 2008, the EU formally launched an agenda to promote “cooperative relations in the Europe-China-Africa triangle”. This illustrates that the EU views China not only as a competitor in Africa but also as a potential cooperative partner; furthermore, the EU’s methods have also led its member countries – particularly the United Kingdom – to explore new channels for cooperation with China in Africa. However, as Stahl points out, these new tactics face many challenges. For instance, some African nations believe that the EU’s actions substantially limit their bargaining power, and China opposes any cooperative project that does not have the support of the African country. 

Stahl’s research makes it clear that in today’s complicated and complex world different international powers can in response to the same issue simultaneously compete and cooperate. The pressure between China and its EU competitors in mainland Africa by no means indicates that bilateral relations will worsen; on the contrary this sort of pressure drives the EU to constantly improve its pertinent policies and has strengthened internal EU solidarity whilst allowing it to begin valuing cooperation with China. With regards to China this process may inspire the country  to embrace a more open and inclusive attitude towards competition in the international arena, and to actively consider how the pressure of competition might be transformed into the driving force of improvement.

Original content by Tao Yu of CNPolitics, translated by Dagny Dukach and made available to Fair Observer by the generosity of our partner site Dongxi.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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