EU-China cooperation on human rights in Africa: prospects for common ground


Picture of Berthold Kuhn
Berthold Kuhn

Picture of Tamilwai Kolowa
Tamilwai Kolowa

China and the European Union have long taken divergent approaches towards development cooperation with Africa, particularly over human rights. However, the current trajectory of EU-China relations suggests it might soon be possible to find common ground. Cooperation in the peace and security fields and in activities to advance sustainable development could bring tangible results in other areas. The joint statement on human rights and sustainable development issued at the 2015 EU-China summit could create a more fertile environment for cooperation.

The EU’s push for trilateral cooperation with China and Africa was largely seen as a response to the rise of Chinese engagement on the continent, which traditional donors watched with some concern. Instead of ignoring or trying to contain China’s role, the EU attempted to work with the People’s Republic. The idea was to “engage with a process in which China is considered a partner with legitimate interests in Africa, identify common interests between the EU, Africa and China and pursue those through dialogue and cooperation while also addressing differences through dialogue,” Uwe Wissenbach, a former coordinator of the EU’s  Africa-China relations, explained in 2009.

Already in the context of the 2006 and 2007 EU-China summits, China agreed to a dialogue on possible trilateral cooperation, for example through NEPAD – the New Partnership for Africa’s Development – launched by African leaders in 2001. However, Chinese officials stayed hesitant. Chinese unease over working within Western donor frameworks, which evolved without input from Beijing, has been cited as one reason. African leaders too are not exactly pushing for more trilateral cooperation. They worry it could diminish their bargaining power with two important donors.

Differences in aid structures also hinder practical cooperation. EU budget support policies stand at odds to the direct project funding approach of the Chinese. However, this may change as the EU re-examines its budget support approaches and looks more critically at its cooperation and funding modalities in different African countries.

The Chinese may also have harboured reservations that the EU’s interest in trilateral cooperation raises issues of sovereignty and an attempt to impose EU norms and values. Although  the EU-China partnership sidesteps Brussels’ usual emphasis on shared values in strategic partnerships and cooperation agreements, observers such as Prof. Liu Lirong of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies argue “the EU tries to establish various dialogue mechanisms to ‘further enmesh China into a web of norms and rules and socialise Beijing into the international community’.” This fear of ‘socialisation’ has clearly been linked to the diverging perceptions of human rights.

However, there are studies suggesting that norms and values concerning human rights perceptions in third countries will gradually converge. Others suggest that in practice, they have never been that different.

The cleavage between the human rights stances of China and the EU seem wide at first glance. The EU tries to harmoniously wrap good governance, human rights, and other political, economic, social and environmental concerns into all forms of development cooperation. In contrast, the PRC – at least rhetorically – sticks firmly to its foreign policy principle of ‘non-interference’.

Human rights for the EU consist of both civil and political rights (CPR) and economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR). Both are legalised by the United Nations under two separate international convents of which China has ratified only that on ESCR. For Beijing it is therefore central that human rights can only be achieved by economic development.

European media have frequently criticised aspects of China’s engagement with Africa, for example Beijing’s relations with Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, or the regimes of Angola and Sudan. China has been accused of propping up dictators and authoritarian regimes. In practice, such regimes have often benefited from European private-sector investment despite political and media criticism. “African dictators in most resource-rich countries had always options. They were never very dependent on the champions of human rights,” wrote Prof. Deborah Brautigam, of John Hopkins University, in her 2010 book ‘The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa’.

It is important to note that China does not engage with autocratic regimes in order to provoke the EU or Western donors in general, it simply works with almost all countries in Africa regardless of the regime. The Forum for China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was launched in 2000, with six ministerial conferences held to date, most recently in Johannesburg in December 2015. The Forum’s agenda is publicly available.

There are a number of developments in the areas of peace and security, governance and human rights that indicate cooperation can make progress.

We have already seen security cooperation between the EU and China in Africa. Since 2008, warships from both sides have worked alongside each other to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden. For both sides, the missions were historic: the first by an EU naval force and the first conducted by the Chinese navy far from its home shores. Coordination has not always gone smoothly, but the naval operations share a common goal, to secure trade routes important to the economic interests of both.

China’s departure from a strict non-interference approach was perhaps best illustrated by the Darfur conflict.  Beijing originally backed the Khartoum government and objected to any interference with the internal affairs of the country, triggering strong international criticism. Since mid-2008 however, China began to change paths. It supported the United Nations African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and added its voice to pressure on the Sudanese government to accept the peace-keeping troops.

As for governance, China shares the concerns of other players in Africa seeking stability and security to maintain political and economic relations. Chinese investors have gone into markets that were previously largely untapped and uncompetitive. Increasingly, China realises that political stability and economic rationality are preconditions for successful relationships. That does not always fit with the principle of non-interference.  Where China sees regimes failing to comply with its development policies in ways that threaten to undermine a sustainable and prospering relationship, it will raise concerns. In this way, the EU’s and China’s visions will ultimately converge, as Ian Taylor, Prof. of International Relations at the University of St Andrews argued in 2011.

With this convergence on security and governance it should be possible to evolve a dialogue on human rights. Working on economic, social and cultural rights could be a start.

While China has been accused of undermining Western human rights efforts in Africa, it could be argued that China’s engagement with Africa has actually improved development prospects and the level of economic and social human rights.

There are worries that China tends to externalise its own neglect of other forms of human development, like environmental and labour standards. Significant human rights abuses related to the behaviour of Chinese contractors have been reported, but Chinese companies, especially medium-sized enterprises, are not as tightly controlled by the state as some might imagine. Moreover, China’s growing commitment to green growth and the Sustainable Development Goals suggest that we might find more common ground.

China’s socio-economic ‘achievements’ and ‘new environmental policies’ do not justify malpractice, but they do add a valuable notion to the human rights discourse. If the EU acknowledges these efforts and works with China to find a conceptual framework that comprises Europe’s notion of sustainable development and China’s commitment to Agenda 2030 and its emphasis of socio-economic rights, that could create common ground for a human rights dialogue.

Despite China’s and Europe’s diversified international cooperation priorities and their foreign and security policy differences in other regions, the human rights discourse may not be as gridlocked as it seems. Africa could yet become fertile ground for an EU-China dialogue.

This article is part of Friends of Europe’s Discussion Paper ‘Europe, China and Africa : new thinking for a secure century ’ published in November 2016, which brings together the views of Friends of Europe’s large network of scholars, policymakers and business representatives on the future of EU-China cooperation in the security field in Africa. These articles provide insight into stakeholders’ views and recommendations as China evolves from an economic to a security player in Africa.

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