Viewing bilateral ties from Africa's perspective
Africa's fate depends on how much power it exercises, and the level of preparedness the African countries display at the upcoming FOCAC summit in Beijing
Over the past four decades, China and African countries have deepened cooperation, mainly because China believes in mutual benefit and sees a multitude of opportunities for growth and geopolitical influence in Africa, which comprises the largest bloc of developing countries.
But China's vision and efforts have often been misinterpreted as "neocolonialism" by skeptics and critics. Surprisingly, however, some of the Western economies that have warned Africa against falling into a dangerous "debt trap" by dealing with China have been consistently rushing to forge strategic partnerships with China to benefit from its economic might.
In January, British Prime Minister Theresa May visited China and signed new deals under the Belt and Road Initiative. She was preceded by French President Emmanuel Macron, who was on a similar mission. They were followed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in May. Thanks to its rapid growth, China is approaching the status of an upper middle-income country with plenty of potential for further development, making it a formidable partner for any economy.
So why is China-Africa cooperation often more critically scrutinized than other international partnerships?
With the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit scheduled for September, which will bring together more than 50 African heads of state to Beijing to meet with President Xi Jinping, voices casting doubts on China-Africa cooperation seem to grow louder. But while critical analysis of contemporary realities is valid and vital, it is just as necessary to revisit history and draw lessons from it.
Which raises an important question: How do Africa's historical relations with the Western world differ from those with China, and what lessons can we draw from them to guide our views of those relations today.
First encounters and fundamental differences
Taking a view that places Africa's riches at the center, a comparison between the history of brutal scramble for wealth in the western coast of Africa and the long tradition of trade in the eastern coast clearly shows there have always been fundamental differences in how the Eastern and Western countries approached Africa and its people.
The arrival of European explorers and sailors in Africa in the 15th century brought good news of gold and other fortunes to the then Western empires, but it stamped the shame of colonization, war and slavery on Africa, the consequences of which Africa and the world continue to suffer till today. And European traders' arrival at the Guinean coastline in the 15th century and the colonization of Cape Verde Islands marked a new epoch of violence and blind scramble for wealth in West Africa. Exploitative names resembling the prime colonial exports of this coastal region such as "the mine", "the gold coast", the "ivory coast", the "pepper coast" and the "slave coast" came to represent the region as exploitations intensified.
But years before European explorers arrived in East Africa, and began their brutal wave of colonization, Chinese explorers had made several voyages to the East African coast, establishing some of the first diplomatic and trade relations between China and Africa.
Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He led a large fleet of ships in seven expeditions to discover the world, showcase China's power and establish cordial relations with other countries while conducting trade. His last three voyages took him to 11 cities along the eastern coastline of Africa, where he established diplomatic and trade relations with established powers such as the Ajuran Kingdom in Mogadishu, one of the most vibrant trade ports in the region since the 12th century. Subsequently, the East African coastline became an important part of the ancient Maritime Silk Road, and played a key role in facilitating China's trade with Africa and the Arab regions.
Recent history and the spirit of solidarity
Since the bells of independence began ringing in different corners of Africa, China has been a dependable partner delivering vital aid and cooperating with African countries to enhance their economies and infrastructure in return for diplomatic support.
In the 1970s, at a time when China's GDP was not much different from its African partners, the spirit of solidarity fueled most of the assistance projects in different parts of the continent. The most significant of which is perhaps the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, a monumental project that signified China's support for African countries' independence struggles. At the time, the 1,860-kilometer single-track railway connected the town of Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia with the port of Dar es Salam in Tanzania, providing the only route for bulk trade from Zambia's copperbelt to the sea without having to transit white-ruled territories. The construction of the railway and its facilitation of trade contributed to the independence of Zambia.
A colossal example of goodwill and sacrifice
When it was built, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway was in fact the longest railway in sub-Saharan Africa, and the largest single foreign-aid project undertaken by China overseas, at a cost of $406 million, a sum equivalent to $2.56 billion today. This came when countries such as Britain, Japan, West Germany, the United States and organizations such as the World Bank all declined to fund the project. Nonetheless, despite China's repeated offers to build the railway, Tanzania's president Julius Nyerere and Zambia's newly elected leader Kenneth Kaunda remained hesitant to ask a country just as much at the threshold of poverty as they were to fund this project.
However, Chairman Mao Zedong reassured his African friends by saying, "You have difficulties so do we, but our difficulties are different. To help you build a railway, we are willing to forsake building railways for ourselves" in a show of goodwill.
Despite the operational difficulties it faced during construction and after its completion, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway remains an enduring symbol of the spirit of solidarity between developing countries, and China's support for Africa's independence and development.
Today, the world seems overwhelmed by a looming trade war, and the US' blind embrace of unilateralism and protectionism and reneging on normative multilateral agreements such as the Paris climate accord. Traditional world powers are inadvertently abdicating their self-proclaimed global leadership positions, and while the race to "Make America Great Again" continues, issues such as Brexit and immigration policy are crippling European politics. But perhaps most significantly, as we see countries closing their doors, China continues to open up to the world, positioning itself as a global leader by pursuing common development.
Africa and global power shifts
With a looming power shift in global politics, if we were to position Africa and its 1.3 billion people on the center stage of this power struggle, how should Africa prepare for this shift?
The integration of African economies into a West-controlled global economy in the post-independence era did little to contribute to African development. Instead, most of the externally generated economic policies the African countries rushed to adopt sunk the continent into greater economic problems. As such, Africa's development woes cannot be viewed in isolation, but in the context of enslavement, colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism, that is, the loss of power.
In his influential book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, published in 1973, historian and activist Walter Rodney says a combination of power politics and economic exploitation of Africa by Europeans led to the poor state of African political and economic development in the 20th century. His central thesis is: "The decisiveness of the short period of colonialism and its negative consequences for Africa spring mainly from the fact that Africa lost power. Power is the ultimate determinant in human society, being basic to the relations within any group and between groups. It implies the ability to defend one's interests and if necessary to impose one's will by any means available. In relations between peoples, the question of power determines maneuverability in bargaining, the extent to which a people survive as a physical and cultural entity. When one society finds itself forced to relinquish power entirely to another society, that in itself is a form of underdevelopment."
FOCAC and prospects of real win-win ties
In all its dealings with Africa, China has pursued win-win relations, granting complete power and autonomy in decision-making to African countries, without any intrusive conditions. However, in order to establish truly win-win relations, both parties must come to the table with at least the same level of mental and physical preparedness.
Has Africa recovered enough from its past ailments borne out of dependency to exercise real power and negotiate real win-win terms with any partner? Or better still, has Africa developed the will to exercise real power to initiate clear and tangible proposals, while at the same time mindful of the fact that China is not there to offer charity, but to support mutually beneficial development under mutually acceptable terms? To me, these are issues worth a closer look under a critical lens.
Africa's potential is limitless. Nonetheless, the fate of Africa will always depend on how much power it exercises. The level of preparedness displayed by African countries attending this year's FOCAC summit will show how far Africa has come, and how far it has to go in terms of reclaiming power and leading its own path for development.
The author is executive director of the Center for East African Studies at the Institute of African Studies, Zhejiang Normal University.