4 October 2010

CHINA-AFRICA: A partnership with equal benefits?

At the end of August, government leaders from China and South Africa announced that they would advance bilateral cooperation in a wide range of areas, including higher education and scientific research. The partnership follows a series of collaborations that have been set up following the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2000 and the formulation of the Chinese government's 'Africa Policy'.

This policy was initiated in 2006 to promote student and faculty exchanges, training in African and Chinese languages, and research cooperation in fields of mutual interest, such as bio-agriculture, mining and medicines.

Since 2006 a large number of African nations including Egypt, Nigeria and Tunisia have signed higher education and research agreements with China and started joint research projects.

In the past four years, China has provided training to around 15,000 African professionals including scientists, doctors, nurses and administrators. It has also started to construct 26 hospitals on the continent and built 30 centres for the treatment of malaria. To enable collaboration, China has established 25 Confucius institutes in 19 African countries, where Mandarin language classes are offered.

Research collaboration is particularly increasing in the area of science and technology. In March this year, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, FOCAC, which includes representatives from China and 49 African countries, launched a series of joint research projects, training programmes and academic staff exchange programmes between partner countries.

China has also promised to offer research equipment to African scientists who return to their home countries on completion of long-term research projects in the country, and a Chinese-funded network of agricultural technology centres in Africa is currently being planned and developed.

Drivers and benefits

The prime aim of China's Africa initiatives, including its higher education and research partnerships with the continent, is to secure a share of Africa's natural resources (especially oil, iron and copper) for use towards its growing population and booming economy. Domestic economic growth, in turn, is likely to give China more global political power.

In addition, by diversifying its trade partners and including African nations, China appears to be trying to limit the financial risks involved in being dependent on a smaller number of trade partners. China also sees Africa as a potentially large market for its own products.

Collaboration in areas such as higher education and science and technology could create the networks necessary to promote these goals.

China's projects can be valuable for Africa, given the higher education and brain drain challenges faced by the continent. The sheer size of the Chinese market, coupled with projections for continued economic growth, can offer good trading opportunities for Africa.

African partners also hope to learn from China's rapid economic development over the past decade. At least 35 of Africa's 53 countries are currently benefiting from Chinese-funded projects to improve infrastructures in the areas of transport, electricity and telecommunications. For Africa, these Chinese activities are important for economic development and brain gain.

The two regions are good partners in the sense that they share no historical conflict and collaborate on the principle of 'non-interference' in each other's politics (apart from China's prohibition of having diplomatic relations with Taiwan).

Analysts have argued that China's emphasis on national sovereignty is attractive to those African states that in the past have been reluctant to implement reforms imposed by Western donor institutions and countries, which often came together with requirements such as improving governance.

Meeting Africa's long-term development needs?

While Chinese politicians argue that their Africa initiatives are mutually beneficial, critics believe that China's motives for Africa collaboration are more profit-oriented than its philanthropic rhetoric would suggest.

According to the African Development Bank, China is on its way to become Africa's most important economic partner. Since the launch of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2000, China-Africa trade has grown at an annual average rate of 33.5%, from US$10 billion in 2000 to US$107 billion in 2008. China has already become South Africa's largest export destination by country since the start of 2009, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Africa profits from these links with China in several ways.

Between 2000 and 2008, the export of African products to China has doubled, and this export growth is still accelerating. China has been playing an increasingly important role in financing and implementing infrastructural projects on the continent, which are improving Africa's future potential for economic development. China has also established special economic zones on the continent, where African goods are being produced.

African Development Bank representatives, however, have argued that there is no guarantee that China will help advance the production of African goods that are not aimed at export to China.

Critics argue that China's initiatives are not always tailored to Africa's needs.

One example is Chinese-sponsored training programmes for African students, who study in China for several years, taking language courses while they study in Chinese. Once these students return to Africa, however, they often struggle to assimilate scientific concepts in a foreign language. To some extent, such difficulties may be due to the fact that China has relatively limited experience in large-scale higher education collaboration.

1 comment:

  1. China must surely have its own commercial interests in Africa. That's not really the question.
    In recent years, however, all this talk of a China-led development of Africa seems to have seeped into the minds of the Chinese leadership. Essentially, China is buying into its own hype that it could be the one to bring Africa out of poverty. Where the West has failed, China wants to succeed. Its success would legitimise the Chinese economic model (as well as the issues of human rights that accompany it), they hope.
    Beneficially for the continent, this newfound Chinese determination to aid in African development actually seems quite genuine, even if half of the reasoning behind it is only to upstage the West.
    I guess we'll have to look at the situation ten, twenty, thirty years from now, and see how things have turned out.


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