In November of this year, the members of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OPEC-DAC) will meet to discuss the co-ordination of the international aid effectiveness agenda. Despite its rise to become a significant provider of development assistance in the developing world, China will not be attending.
This non-inclusion of China in the international aid architecture is problematic because of China’s increasingly important role in the field of development, particularly in Africa. A contributing factor to western reticence towards including China is a preoccupation with misleading facts concerning China’s engagement with Africa. It is, for example, widely understood that China’s interest in Africa is recent and focused solely on achieving strategic domination of resources. Just last year, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa described China as “a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals” (BBC).
This conception not only misinforms, but encourages the framing of development debates on China’s engagement in Africa in pejorative terms. But if one considers the facts, China’s aims in Africa can be better characterized as economic development rather than strategic domination.
China’s engagement in Africa is widespread and historically entrenched with significant diplomatic, economic and foreign aid ties in countries both resource rich and otherwise. Modern Chinese engagement in Africa began in the fifties and sixties, driven by geo-political needs to garner solidarity among socialist countries and to secure goodwill to regain its UN Security Council seat from Taiwan. In the late seventies and early eighties, as a result of China’s own domestic difficulties and a lack of demonstration of aid effectiveness, China scaled back its aid and transitioned to a business model. Since then, the Chinese have linked aid to business relations drawing upon their own successful historical experience in development.
In the 1970s, following the Cultural Revolution, China was in desperate need of technology and infrastructure. Secured by Chinese oil, the Japanese extended funding to build infrastructure and technology in China and cultivated economic relations with the Chinese through the provision of aid to promote business links. Today, China does the same in Africa. Using the currency of infrastructure, China secures the flow of commodities and supports hundreds of businesses spanning fields such as trade, transportation, agriculture and textiles. Hence, whilst it is true that a significant motivator of Chinese engagement in Africa is to secure access to resources, the Chinese approach does not suggest exploitative strategic competition but, rather, economic development.
The prevailing attitude of mistrust and alarm toward China is counterproductive in the African development discourse. China is a dynamic in Africa. Its engagements challenge the prevailing western model of aid effectiveness and appeal to African development actors. Last year, Donald Kaberuka, the President of the African Development Bank, was extremely positive about China’s investment activity due to its contribution to building the cornerstone of economic growth: infrastructure. Similar sentiments have been echoed by business leaders and within the general population across Africa.
This is not to say that Chinese activity in Africa is not without its downsides. Indeed, much criticism can be leveled at China concerning the poor treatment of African and Chinese workers and its substandard consideration of the environment. China’s piecemeal approach to development is often driven by soft-diplomacy concession rather than developmental outcomes as a result of which it often comes into association with pariah governments and states. Focusing on the negatives is, however, unproductive. Admittedly, the Western development model is not perfect, with criticism often leveled at it for being heavily bureaucratic and heavily constrained by democratic accountability to western polities.
Today, China is Africa’s second largest trading partner, surpassing the United States, and is on a rapid trajectory to surpass the European Union in the coming decades. As we approach the OECD-DAC summit, it is important to reflect on China’s immense importance in the achievement of the United Nations led Millennium Development Goals by many African countries and the greater developing world. The lack of inclusion of China in the preeminent aid institutions is problematic and should be an important topic for discussion at the OPEC-DAC summit later this year.
Ben Baxter has a LLB from the University of Sydney, Australia and is a recent graduate of the Himalayan Field School, a combined initiative of the Sydney Centre of International Law and Kathmandu School of Law. During his studies he was involved with the organisation Edirisa, in Uganda, a society for promoting Africa, creativity, cultures and practical skills.
Ben Baxter is a member of Global21, a network of student-run international affairs publications and atlantic-community.org's new partner.