Steve McDonald, Consulting Director, Africa Program and Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Dr. Sharon T. Freeman, Author/Publisher, "China, Africa, and the African Diaspora: Perspectives" and President, AASBEA
Madam Xu Erwen, Minister Counselor, Embassy of the People's Republic of China
Princeton Lyman, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Ambassador Charles Stith,
Director, African Presidential Archives and Research Center (APARC) at Boston University
Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III, Dean, Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, Walter H. Annenberg Chair in Communication, University of Southern California
Dr. Shaka Sali, Host of "Straight Talk Africa," Voice of America (VOA)
Dr. Claire Nelson, President of the Institute of Caribbean Studies (ICS)
During the last decade and a half, the Chinese presence in Africa has increased significantly in scope, depth and composition, involving an expanding cast of characters and changing relationships. On December 7th, author and publisher Dr. Sharon T. Freeman was joined by contributing authors for the launch of her new book China, Africa and the African Diaspora to discuss and analyze various perspectives on China's increasing interest and participation
in African economic markets.
Dr. Freeman briefly introduced the panelists acknowledging several other contributing authors in attendance.
China's interests and involvement in Africa have fallen under international scrutiny due to increasingly aggressive investing and partnerships with various African governments. While the Western perspective on this reality is often defined by skepticism and wariness over Chinese intentions, African perspectives are decidedly more positive. Panelists examined both the benefits and drawbacks to China's diverse and immense presence throughout Africa.
Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III began by posing a provocative question; "does the People's Republic of China (PRC) cheat?" Dr. Wilson clarified that his reason for asking the question was that it reflects the commonly held public perception of China's actions and motivations within Africa. Dr. Wilson posited that the international community is concerned with China's foreign policy behavior, specifically with regard to its policy of linking foreign direct investment (FDI) to access to assistance. In context, the term cheating refers to whether the PRC is following international business guidelines set by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), based in Paris. Dr. Wilson presented his own method for analyzing the long-term implications of China's economic policy in Africa utilizing the protocol and framework developed by the OECD, which suggests appropriate ways in which foreign assistance should be used. The OECD rules and framework have become institutionalized standard operating procedure that OECD member countries follow surrounding issues of trade, citizen diplomacy, citizen engagement, and security. Dr. Wilson's research led to the conclusion that China is currently not following all of the standards set within the OECD framework, but that the PRC's behavior is gradually moving towards resembling international business norms, indicating a positive trend to the international community.
Madam Xu Erwen, the Minister Counselor at the Embassy of the People's Republic of China, addressed the PRC's motivations behind policies towards Africa, stating that the PRC views the relationship as a strategic partnership. China and Africa have had similar historical experiences which have served to strengthen their relationship over the past fifty years. Ms. Xu mentioned that the PRC's acceptance for United Nations membership was largely due to the support of the large African voting bloc in the General Assembly. Last year alone, Sino/African trade reached $168 billion due to the PRC's direction of companies and private merchants to increase trade and invest more heavily into African infrastructure and other development projects. Madam Xu emphasized the PRC's policy of non-interference in domestic affairs, stating, "We will not impose our values, model, or social philosophy on the Africans. That's our principle. We get mutual benefits and our economies are complementary." Additionally, through continued exchanges of high level visits and persistent correspondence between government and business officials, China has expanded its role in Africa beyond solely economic ties. According to Madam Xu, China has requested an expanded role in peacekeeping in Africa and currently ranks first or second in peacekeeping in that region. She ended by welcoming the international community's interest in China's policy towards Africa in order to increase understanding of Chinese perspective in international affairs.
Ambassador Princeton Lyman complimented much of what Madam Erwen discussed; principally, that Dr. Freeman's book addresses the assumption that China only holds motivations for resource control in Africa and demonstrates that this is untrue. The diversity of Chinese investment priorities encompasses agriculture, tourism, health, housing, and communications projects. Lyman noted that President Hu Jintao frequently meets with African leaders and holds an Africa summit every two years; a much more consistent record of high-level meetings than has the United States, despite recent attention and visits by President Obama and Secretary Clinton. According to Lyman, China should be viewed as a formidable competitor prepared to deploy all the assets of a great power. Addressing Dr. Wilson's question of cheating, Lyman reiterated that China was not present during the development of the current OECD or World Bank regulations for international trade and investment. Although Chinese policy does deviate from OECD rules, the PRC was not party to their establishment and therefore not strongly compelled to comply. Lyman suggested more dialogue and interaction about what the international standards ought to reflect and how they should be developed due to increasingly shared regional interests, and recommends more cooperation and collaboration among the major players, including China.
Ambassador Charles Stith also discussed opportunities for collaboration between the United States
and China on issues such as energy, power production, and peacekeeping. An additional area of cooperation that Stith highlighted and acknowledged as seemingly counterintuitive was that of governance reform. Stith's research center at Boston University tracks 16 countries transitioning to democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, many having established relationships with the United States, as well as with China. Stith posited that complimentarity on governance issues is possible, even though the PRC is not a democracy in western terms, and that the PRC should be encouraged to help promote the democratization process in Africa on the basis of wealth through stability. China's accomplishments in regulatory reform are substantial and the US should consider the PRC as a partner involved in the overall development of Africa. On the question of cheating, Stith answered, "From the African perspective, everybody's been cheating, which is why we haven't come up with a successful way to administer aid to Africa that has substantially changed reality on the ground." Only over last few decades of Chinese engagement and expansion has there been some creativity in helping Africa grow.
Dr. Shaka Sali drew upon his own personal experience with Chinese influence having grown up and lived in Africa. He has witnessed a shift in
African perception towards the Chinese from that of being opportunistic to now becoming more accepted by local communities. Even though the Chinese Diaspora population in Africa does not speak native languages and maintains a different system of values, they have succeeded partly because they are being seen as simple, down-to-earth people without arrogance that interact well with locals. Coinciding with this increased acceptance is increased skepticism towards US policy in Africa regarding human rights and democracy promotion, both of which are distinctly absent from Chinese rhetoric and requirements for cooperation. The Chinese have emerged as formidable and shrewd business competitors. Sali raised the concern that if Americans want to continue doing business and expect successes in Africa, they are going to have to adjust their thinking to account for Africans' growing consensus on the benefits of competition. Sali posited that the West still has an advantage over the PRC because of more shared cultural values with Africans; however adjustments must be made in order to maintain this position.
Claire Nelson cited her own experience with the Chinese presence in the Caribbean, which has a longer history than in Africa. She mentioned that the Chinese population in much of the Caribbean is as embedded in daily life as anyone, and that many Caribbean students now go to Beijing to study. Principally, she expressed the concern that China's interest in the Caribbean has waned, and she would like to see a redefined relationship with more benefits for development and opportunities as in many parts of Africa.