AS regional collaborations go, it is essentially incontrovertible that China and Africa have a fundamentally good relationship. Historic in nature, it is founded on a long record of mutual support. China supported Africa’s struggle for independence and the uncompromising commitment to the total liberation of the entire continent at a time when a fair number of western responses, especially by colonial powers epitomized nothing less that prevarication and recalcitrance.
For its part, Africa gave China total support in her struggle for acceptance in the global comity of nations, especially her membership in the United Nations. This solidarity of purpose enabled the evolution of a “Third Force” in international relations, something outside of the Capitalist West and the Communist East Cold War rivalry.
Dream to be a global power
Africa’s support for China would prove even more strategic and significant in the latter’s relentless drive for rapid economic development in pursuit of a dream to become a global power. First, Africa served as a de facto testing ground for Chinese consumer goods and industrial products in their essentially rough-hewn adolescent state well before they were perfected. Africa provided a market for exposing Chinese “interim” products and the important cash-flow that came with that, well before they would be ready for the more competitive global market. Second, Africa also served as the training grounds for young Chinese managers who would be later deployed to Europe and the United States, having gotten the incubative exposure that Africa provided.
Third, resisting or circumventing the otherwise dominant or domineering presumption of control of the African market by erstwhile colonial powers, in the most critical stage of China’s emergence into a global industrial state to be reckoned with, African countries has provided vast opportunities for Chinese heavy industry companies to win contracts for a plethora of heavy industries from highway and bridge construction, railways, power generation and distribution (includingsolar, wind and other clean and renewable energy), telecommunications network equipment and devices, Information Technology, shipping and more.
For their part, the Chinese companies, backed by their government in various ways, including through loans and development assistance, has provided financial assistance and more competitive price quotations that empowered the African governments to tilt towards them and against western companies that had for decades held African governments “hostage” by pursuing a take it or leave it attitude, convinced that the Africans would not dare seek alternative sources of industrial and engineering goods and related technical services.
Buoyed by all of these remarkable differential opportunities, especially at a time when the resistance to Chinese products and industries was palpable (and still tangible given for example the resistance to such Chinese telecoms companies as Huawei and ZTE in the United States), China and African Countries instituted a formal instrument for periodic dialogue at the highest levels in pursuit of a presumed common interest in the form of what was planned to be an annual summit of Chinese and African Heads of State. The first such Sino-Africa meeting was held in Beijing in 2000.Many such summits have been held through the years both in China and in Africa. This week, the 2018 Sino-Africa Summit, is holding in Beijing, co-chaired by President Xi Jinping of China and President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa. In the time that has elapsed, the name of the summit has been changed to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation or FOCAC, a rather unglamorous and difficult to pronounce acronym.
On balance, the China-Africa partnership has bestowed a lot of benefits on both parties. Statistics are rampant. For example, in an article in Nigeria’s ThisDay newspaper of March 11, this year, China’s envoy to Nigeria, Dr. Zhou Pingjian, claims that “two-way trade and China’s total non-financial investment in Africa in 2017 were 17 times and around 100 times that of 2000 respectively.” Chinese companies have earned billions of dollars in contract work as Africa continues to contribute significantly to China’s global trade revenues and the country’s global market share and competitiveness.
The on-going Chinese “gold-rush” relentless acquisition of land and mining rights in Africa is dizzying and rather frightening to Africans concerned about the rapid loss of ownership and control of natural resources supposedly being held in trust for future generations of Africans. This is a potential source of conflict in China-Africa partnership in the near future if not honestly, transparently and intelligently addressed now by the two sides with the sensitivity and judgement that is called for.
Another scramble for Africa
The appearance of yet another scramble for Africa in the making, a Chinese scramble this time, is a real possibility that must be addressed now in the context of the SMART partnership that one is advocating here. It should not be brushed aside. In this regard, a reciprocal arrangement in which Africans can acquire land and mining rights in China on similar terms would be agood place to start, and a smart demonstration of a commitment to fairness and equity.
The New Dispensation: An Unexpected Era of Global Uncertainty and Unpredictability
What has been is all well and good. But we have a new global dispensation, an unexpected era of global uncertainty and unpredictability ushered in and epitomized by a Trumpian America. Of course, the seeds of this upheaval were planted a bit earlier and only just beginning to germinate courtesy of the unmeasured stridency and unbridled restlessness of the American president. In just a year and a half, what most used to recognise as a discernable world order has either crumbled or lost its bearings, leaving chaos and disruption as the emerging order of the day. In the dynamics of this untraversed territory characterised by new confusion almost on a daily basis, China has found itself caught in the cross-hairs of America’s taunts and levitating “guerilla” economic warfare, with prospects of consequences that are yet undefined but nonetheless bound to be real.
As Europe and other targets of President Donald Trump’s trade offensives search urgently for new configurations of global alliances in an effort to minimize their exposure and beef up their options, China finds itself unexpectedly forced at last to face the first true test of having become a global power.Thus, the accomplishments of its remarkable and sustained drive for global economic might alongside concomitant military power are being put to test as it seeks to negotiate an accommodation aimed at forestalling an eventuality that nobody truly wishes or wants. China so far appears to be holding its own. But the race is yet too early to call.
But notwithstanding the fact that whoever succeeds DonaldTrump as the American president(and whenever)will have much more than a handful of situations to undo, some significant damage has and is being done that will be difficult to reverse. Countries, like people, seek to learn lessons from shock experiences. Whatever these lessons, smart nations will scramble to craft alternative strategies to reduce their contingent vulnerability and similar exposure the next time around,and in so doing, most often will create new configurations and alliances that may not be dismantled in the event of a return to her earlier safe and secure status quo. As Trump’s Sancho Panza wars continue, China will realise that, just as Britain has following its Brexit mandate, that it must contemplate new or modified configurations of global alliances to reinforce stability and predictability in its international trade and political partnerships. Predictably British Prime Minister Theresa May has reached out to erstwhile colonies in Africa to seek help to mitigate consequential threats to Britain’s economic and trade future. To this end, not surprisingly, the proud subject of the Queen, managed to camouflage the cap-in-hand solicitation of African support with advice on what South Africa and Nigeria must do and not do.
Every smart nation able to discern the threat of any medium-term sustenance of what so far still appears to be Trump’s unpredictable and adventurous toy store spontaneity in international trade and global diplomacy would by now be on the drawing board crafting various likely scenarios of disruption and their corresponding strategic response. Such smart countries should by no means be limited to Canada, Germany, Mexico, Japan, China and the like. They must include African countries. In fact, given the manner in which Africa has been dismissed in the ongoing melodrama, African countries more than any others have a compelling reason to begin to anticipate the hostile scenarios that will inevitably confront them and begin to apply their experience and genius to craft and assess the corresponding possible mitigations.
When Crises Become Unique Opportunities
From a strategic point of view, the triple threat of the ongoing disruption of global trade understandings, the Trump factor and its residues in the aftermath of his administration, and the indications of yet another scramble for Africa all together compel Africa, and offer Africa a unique opportunity, to rise and shine by finding the courage once and for all to jettison the uninspired and unimaginative survival approach to development and instead unleash its inherent and studied genius to once and for all craft an enlightened strategic development agenda that will make its perpetually presumed point of weakness in international trade and partnerships a thing of the past.
What it takes is the sheer courage to dare to alter its trajectory from survival to ambitious transformation, heading relentlessly for the cutting edge of global competitiveness, powered by its recognised intellectual strength spread around the world, fueled by its vast natural and other resources, and driven by a shared continental dream and the compelling need to acquire the audacity, discipline, diligence and untiring commitment to build a new society and socio-economy that Africans have yearned for. In so doing, it can provide solace and hope to young Africans who, not seeing this tangible future,are compelled to take the risk of dangerous journeys across theSahara Desert and crossing the Mediterranean on dingy boats in search of what they no longer think they can find at home.
A Unique Option and Opportunity for China and Africa
This is where the China-Africa partnership comes in. All else aside, what makes (or should make) China so attractive to Africans is the fact that in a span of a few decades, China, in a giant effort masterminded by a combination of Chinese intellectual power at home and in the Diaspora, fueled by its natural and other resources, and driven by a shared dream and a compelling sense of unacceptable deficit in the global reckoning, found the discipline, diligence, unflinching commitment, audacity and sense of purpose to set out on a new path of transformation that led China out of a period of confusion to become a global power to be reckoned with.
Put differently, China has been able to do for itself and its people, precisely what Africa needs to and must do for itself and for its people——jettison the wasteful and uninspiring pursuit of survival and dare to strike out to become a strong modern socio-economy, globally competitive and uniquely capable of creating the enabling environment for its people to pursue their dreams, no matter how high, with a more than reasonable possibility and expectation of achieving them, or at least a reasonable facsimile of them, in tangible finite time.
Towards A Smart and More Ambitious China-Africa Partnership
There is, no doubt, much value in the current China Africa partnership. The loan packages, trade and other deals have inherent value and are making or will make important difference to both economies. But if Africa ever seriously intends to change the tide of its prevalent development malaise, and set on a path more noble and more worthy of itself, its history and its pedigree, it must now strike out to seek, with neither prevarication nor excuse, to effect for itself a transformation similar to what China has done for itself, preferably in a shorter time, one that is possibly even superior,more durable and more enormous, given the potential benefits of lessons learned from an intimate study of the Chinese experiment and experience. The appeal and logic of invoking and using the China experience as a model, duly modified as it must in some key areas, to transform Africa and completely jettison the archaic model of poverty eradication through minimalism, lies in the remarkable similarities between the African condition that it must now change, and the Chinese condition at the time that it decided had to be changed. China did it. Africa can do it too.
And if the China-Africa partnership is to take a dramatic turn and strive to become a historic partnership, it must be to work together to helpAfricatransform itself into a successful, enduring, humane, globally competitive modern socio-economy, nonetheless distinguished by its historic and enduring socio-cultural heritage. Only so enormous an ambition will bring about the transformation that Africa badly needs to undertake, with time running out. This calls for a major paradigm shift in China-Africa collaboration. It, nonetheless, cannot be over-emphasised that the prime (and if inevitable, the sole) responsibility for such transformation of Africa lies squarely on the shoulders of the African people and their leaders themselves. But China’s commitment to helping Africa accomplish this quintessential and compelling Dream, using the benefit of its own successful experiment and experience, will give significant meaning and import to the very notion of a true China-Africa Partnership.
What Needs To Be Done
A few ideas will serve to jumpstart the process envisages in such a smart new partnership
- First andforemost, there needs to be recognition of the compelling reasons for such a paradigm shift. If this week’s summit can at least recognise and acknowledge this and set in motion a process for its pursuit, it would be a major accomplishment. The challenge of replicating the Chinese experience, recognizing the areas of important difference in their condition or desire needs to be carefully studied by a joint task force of Chinese and African scholars, intellectuals and experts. They must not belimited to governmentbureaucrats as such a gargantuan undertaking requires thinking outside the box. The dialogue should also be encouraged in theAfrican and Chinese pubic space for maximum public input.
- The very raison d’étre of the present partnership needs to be re-examined. I have maintainedfor many years that there are three criticalrequirements for a fair, balanced and successful regional or bilateral strategic partnership.
- “Trade amongst nations must be fair and equitable” as Benjamin Franklin once said.
- It must involve equal access to each other’s market at the same level of sophistication and value-addition.
iii. It must involve what I choose to call comparative, competitive capacity, in the absenceofwhich there must be a mechanism to acquire such capacity such that once Africa pays for it, it will not have to do so a second time, having now acquired same.
Possible First Steps
- On the basis of the above three conditions for genuine global partnerships, China can open up the vast 1.4 billion plus population Chinese market to sophisticated value-added moderate to high-value products,services and innovation to access by incubating African companies and start-ups. These could include telecommunications network, applications and device companies(withfuturemigration to equipment manufacturing), software development, social media companies, engineering, Research and Development companies, law firms, accounting firms, fashion, sportswear and footwear companies, banks and otherfinancialinstitutions, and more. This will be appropriately fair andequitable, given the similar sizes of both economies. With the now high earning Chinese middle-class, this would prove to be very lucrative for up and coming African enterprises.The present model of essentially low value raw material imports to China and high-value sophisticated exports to Africa will not provide the incentiveand driving force for Africa’s rapid competitive strategicdevelopment. Continuing this model will not serve Africa of China well.
- In the much-touted agriculture sector, China has tariffs on African exports that make Africa uncompetitive against primarily Asian exports of identical products to China. Such additional tariffs make it difficult for Africa to compete in the Chinese market. A good example is cassava exports which carry differential tariffs. Such tariffs could be easily eliminated without putting any undue burden on the Chineseeconomy. Furthermore, given the fact that most agricultural products are perishable, appropriate mechanisms should be put in place that will enable the Chinese importer to inspect and sign off on agricultural goods prior to their leaving Africa so that the exporter is not at the mercy of any importer rejecting products that are already in China.
- Agriculture is a key item in the ongoing trade war between China and the United States. An inevitable product of this is the need for China to source some of the agricultural products it has been importing from the United States from other countries. On top of the list is soybeans. China can make up some of its U. S. import deficits from African farmers.
- China can promote genuine industrial and technical partnerships and joint ventures between Chinese and African companies for projects in both China and Africa, and elsewhere for that matter. Contrary to casualimpressions, such partnerships and joint ventures hold much benefit for both Chinese and African companies and entrepreneurs. In addition to the large number of highly trained African engineers, scientists, physicians, business and financial experts and more, who will bring much technical and expert value to such arrangements, such arrangements prevent the notion that Chinese companies see Africans only as workers and not potentialpartners. The configurations envisaged here go beyond partnershipsfor the purpose ofobtaining jobs or winning contracts. As doing business in Africabecomes increasingly more sophisticated,Chinese companies will begin to realise that forging genuine partnership holds much critical and strategic value.
- Collaboration between Chinese and African institutions in Research and Development, along with deliberate establishment of advanced R&D efforts in Africa will both produce new and valuable intellectual property as well as advanceknowledge from bringingtogetherChinese and African knowledge, experience, perspectives and insights to address common researchchallenges. A collateral value from such collaboration will be the raising of the level of scientific enterprise to new and more formidable heights.
- On the social and cultural levels, a genuine programme of deliberately promoting significant knowledge of each other’s people, history, culture and society amongst Chinese and Africanpeoples will serve to deepen the understanding of each other, a development that makes tradeand collaboration more meaningfuland successful. Such mutuallearning about each other will also serve as another sector of mutual trade through the products of the arts, language, music, culture and their digital aspects.
What’s in it for China?
China stands to gain as much as Africa from the smart and ambitious strategic partnership proposed here. Besides resulting in a vastly larger volume andscopeof trade and engagement, which it will, this model will enable a much greater and more durable collaborationbecausetrade amongst equals is muchmore beneficial to each of the parties than one between an advanced partner and a disadvantagedother partner. The case of Europe and America following the rebuilding of EuropethroughtheMarshall Plan post Second World War is an incontrovertiblecase in point.
In addition, as the reconfiguration of the global dispensationaccelerates, China will need an increasingly more powerful loyal partner. Africa is just such a partner.
Finally, China-Africa partnership is essentially bilateral in its present stage. Asthe global realignment speeds up, and with the Trump assault of the European Union, for example, there will be pressure for new global alliances. A developed modern Africa will be astrong partner to anyone who invests at this critical moment in supporting Africa’s dream to transform itself just as China has done. Who better to be such a strategic partner than China?
Dr. Joseph Okpaku, Sr. is Chairman of Transcontinental Industrial & Energy Company Ltd. and CEO of Third Press Publishers.
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