What China understands about Africa that the West doesn’t

As China’s president Xi Jinping toured Africa for a China-Africa forum aimed at deepening economic and security ties, the visit is increasingly asking deeper questions about world order. President Xi mentioned recently, that “China supports the resolution of African issues by Africans in the African way.” That’s an extremely important quote, to be highlighted, which underscores Chinese diplomacy as Xi channels a Sun Tzu realism, in his way of handling one of the most important regions of the world. It also highlights a very Chinese way of statecraft, which differentiates her from the Western Neo-Liberal globalist perspective. It is important to note, as it provides answers to deeper questions about Great power behavior in a changing global order.

How much does China mean to Africa and how much does Africa mean to China? From the words of South African President Jacob Zuma, it is a defining relation of this century. Zuma said, “We have just witnessed the signing of 26 agreements that are worth 94 billion rand”, an equivalent of USD 6.5 billion in deals with South Africa alone. Previously in an agreement signed with Zimbabwe, China pledged USD 1.2 billion for a power project. And at the time of writing this column it is expected that with Nigeria, Chinese pledge will be around USD 20 billion for infrastructure and development including railways and industry. BBC reported Zuma stating “China has become Africa’s largest trade partner, and Africa is now one of China’s major import sources and fourth largest investment destination. This partnership can only yield further positive results for Africa’s development.”

Not just infrastructure, China is looking forward to have its own expanding security footprints in Africa. Chinese government recently pledged military aid to the African Union, also sending peacekeepers to northern Mali in 2013 and to South Sudan this year. And Chinese foreign ministry recently announced plans to build a logistical navy base in Djibouti, looking over Arabian sea. This is a development, which can help foster a G2 world, as Political Scientist Ian Bremmer wrote, and it should be cautiously welcomed as a venture that China is ready to take its share of security burden, as a good global citizen.

What China understands about this relationship is something which differentiates it from the west. China is not negligent of the cultural peculiarities and differences and is not trying to globalize and shape Africa in the same mold as China. The Chinese administration understands the geo-political and cultural difference of the African continent with China and Asia, and even the sub-continental differences and variety within Africa. Chinese developmental help for Africa is not contingent with how African leadership or population behaves from a cultural and moral angle. The understanding and acknowledgement of the uniqueness of cultural factors in Africa is what is welcomed within Africa about China and differentiates China with the perception about West, which is seen on the whole as a neo-imperial entity, for right or wrong reasons. As Dambisa Moyo, Zambian economist noted in her book, “Dead Aid”, the West attaches a lot of contingencies in providing aid to Africa, which is looked as detrimental in the growth of African continent, and is despised by the African people.

The Realist nature of the current Chinese administration is highlighted and is markedly different from the Liberal order espoused by USA and EU, when it comes to Africa. Without destroying the established global order, it is trying to carve out a new order in Africa, and that is an extremely interesting development to observe in the coming years.


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