China in the Maghreb: friend or enemy?

*** Note from the editor: this is a syndicated article originally posted by Benjamin Hibbert for The Best of Africa ***

China’s involvement in Africa stretches back many centuries, yet it was not until after the formation of the People’s Republic, and the era of decolonisation in the continent of Africa, that China established diplomatic ties with African states. The Suez Crisis in 1956 provided the catalyst for China’s increased presence (firstly with Egypt). Since then, trade between China and the continent of Africa has increased substantially: between 1989 and 1997 it had increased 430% (see p. 463), and between 2000 and 2008 trade increased ten-fold (see p. 27). China offers aid and trade with Africa almost unconditionally, with one notable exception: that partner states recognise the inalienable concept of ‘One China’, with the People’s Republic of China exercising sovereignty over Taiwan. This arrangement is contrary to the conditional aid of Western donor states, which largely centres on democratisation, the promotion of human rights, and poverty reduction. Many African leaders view these conditions as an extension of Western paternalism (see p. 461), whilst China is prepared to extricate herself from what it sees as the ‘internal affairs’ of a sovereign state. China’s aid, therefore, has enabled rogue regimes to acquire money and munitions, which in turn has enabled it to perpetuate a strangle-hold on the key stakeholders: the people.

China has been a major donor in key infrastructure projects on the continent of Africa, and particularly in the under-developed sub-Saharan region. These projects have some positive returns for local and regional communities, yet some contest that they have been largely built by the sweat of Chinese brows, and many of locals are either under-employed, or temporarily employed (see p. 203), in such projects. Furthermore, it could be argued that as key economic and strategic stakeholders in the region, China has a vested interest in improving key infrastructure such as roads, for it allows for consumables and natural resources (i.e. oil) to be transported to Chinese markets swifter, and thus saves time and money.


Chinese Premier Li Keqiang meets with Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal in Beijing, China on April 29, 2015. China News Service

African states have looked to China to establish and maintain Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in order to generate and maintain much-needed trade and revenue. China’s SEZs have been a success story of its economic development since their implementation in 1979 onwards. Their implementation in Africa is strategically, politically, and economically advantageous to China, and supports the Central Government’s objective for Chinese companies to ‘Go Global’. China offers subsidies and diplomatic assistance as an incentive for its companies to develop the SEZs, but does not interfere with their running – due to their policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. The SEZs offer China a political and economic foot-hold in Africa, and in zones such as the Suez zone, they allow Chinese goods to be rebranded as Egyptian products, and thus allowing Chinese companies to gain a competitive advantage from Egypt’s trading agreements. The success of African SEZs has been varied, as has been the extent to which Africans themselves are involved in their establishment. Countries such as Nigeria have had a significant financial stake in their establishment, and have ensured that local labour and management is used, whilst others have taken a less active role, leaving Chinese corporations to establish the zones.

When viewing China as a friend or fiend, those in the ‘friend’ camp may view China’s investment in Africa as much-needed, given Africa’s under-developed economy. This investment, in turn, will empower Africans to eventually take control of their own destiny once the zones are completed, and surrounding infrastructure is fully integrated. Furthermore, through a policy of non-interference, it could also be argued that Africa’s destiny lies in her hands – free from the paternalistic West. China’s ‘scramble in Africa’ may also be seen as a rebalancing of world power, and a shift from U.S. hegemony.

Conversely, those in the ‘fiend’ camp will see China’s involvement as ‘neo-colonial in nature’ (see Brautigam, 2011, p. 28) and the SEZs and China’s ‘Go Global’ initiative as a strategic ploy aimed at extracting food and resources from ‘Mother Africa’, whilst allowing Chinese manufacturers and enterprise to further expand their reach. The non-involvement in the internal affairs of Africa may also be seen as a disadvantage, for it has stalled Western efforts to democratise the continent, and has enabled despotic regimes to retain power. China’s non-conditional approach may be viewed as self-serving, for if African states reciprocated, issues within China’s own borders would face further criticism. Further compounding this issue, Elizabeth Manero asserts that there is a “strong correlation between the amount of aid given, and the support for China’s foreign policy objectives”. Therefore, the more supportive African states are of China, the more financial and political support they can expect to receive (a ‘carrot and stick’ approach).

The truth may lie in a third-way, by viewing China as both a friend and fiend to the continent of Africa.

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