The term ‘cooperation’ is also awkward. It implies equal partnership, mutual respect and mutual benefit. Yet between Europe, China and Africa, the situation is unequal and often unfair towards Africa. The term ‘relations’ fits better.
There are many ways of looking at relations between Africa, the EU and China. There are political and cultural dimensions, but the focus of this article is on economic and trade relations. Most of Africa’s economic relations with the developed world are conditioned by colonial structures of production, accumulation and trade, in other words, neo-colonialism.
By the turn of the last century, the image of Africa as a hopeless ‘dark continent’ prevailed in many parts of the world. In 2000, the World Bank1 asked ‘Can Africa claim the 21st Century?’ That same year, The Economist2 described Africa as ‘The hopeless continent’ in a cover story. It followed up in 2001 with another damning headline: ‘Africa’s elusive dawn’.
A decade later, narratives began to change. In 2013, The Economist3 led with ‘Africa Rising: the hopeful continent’ and the McKinsey Global Institute4 in 2010 issued a report entitled ‘Lions on the move: the progress and potential of African economies’.
Changing narratives do not always reflect changing realities. Debate is still raging over whether ‘Africa Rising’ is fact or myth. Despite commodities’ inspired growth and the success of some countries - like Kenya - outside the primary sector in fields such as technology, a compelling case can be made that unfair trade and the untransformed nature of national economies continue to inhibit Africa’s development and competitive potential.
When discussing EU-China relations ‘in and with Africa’, it is important to position Africa in an ever-changing geopolitical reality. The interests of Africa should not be undermined by a geopolitical narrative that dismisses the continent as a non-space among the major world powers.
Historically, Europe and China have had very different relations with Africa. Europeans exerted colonial lordship for generations. China's presence in Africa is not as recent as some think. During the Cold War the Chinese leadership actively supported national independence movements by providing development and technical assistance.
The history of colonialism and slavery still weighs heavily in today’s Africa. Many Africans are wary of China as a ‘new coloniser’. The Europeans and China – despite their rhetoric on development and trade partnerships – keep national interests at the heart of their dealings with the continent.
The world that emerged in the 1970s was one of triumphant capitalism and great promise, at least for many in the West. It came to represent progress and prosperity. It was a world, Joseph Stiglitz wrote, of ‘closer integration of the countries and peoples of the world’.5
To some, John Ralston Saul wrote in 2005, economic globalisation meant “all civilisations from now on were going to be led by commerce … the other constituent parts of human activity – from politics to social policy to culture – were going to be perceived principally through the prism of economics, which, once released from most of government interference, would find its natural balances.”6
What has since happened is that Europe – excepting the 2008 economic crisis, the euro-zone crises and re-emergence of narrow nationalism – has joined the rest of the Western world to reap the greatest benefits from globalisation. China has managed to reform to be able to compete and integrate internationally.
Yet, while other regions have benefited from globalisation, Africa has fallen behind, forced to carry the burdens of the changed global economic order.
Indeed, Africa has experienced lost decades trying to experiment with industrialisation in the immediate post-colonial era. Those failures were compounded soon after by the structural adjustment programmes imposed on African countries.
Africa was hurt by a combination of globalisation, uneven development and unfair, neo-colonialist trade. The legacy of colonialism in Africa bears the imprints of both material and cultural dispossession. Today, Africa needs to shake off constraints in its relations with the EU and China and seize the many opportunities they bring.
Two things are crucial for Africa to take advantage of those opportunities. The first is sovereignty which means, in the words of Noam Chomsky, the “ability to control internal economic development and to enter international market systems on one’s own terms … a crucial prerequisite to economic development.”7 The second is building effective institutions.
Recent interest in Africa mirrors the same old interests of the previous century: natural resources, markets, human capital, etc. For China’s part, growing concern over energy security has increased its demand for Africa’s oil and gas. Its relationship with Nigeria, Angola and Sudan illustrates the point.
In terms of official policy, the ‘Beijing Consensus’ is based on “the Taoist tradition and it emphasises non-hegemony, non-interference and no alliances as the main axis of the Chinese foreign policy,”8 wrote Vasiliki Papatheologou in 2014 in the Journal of African Studies and Development. Official EU foreign policy towards Africa mirrors that of most Western governments emphasise good governance, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, etc.
However, there are contradictions in the approach of both sides. The EU is complicit when member states like France take part in illegal invasions and violations of sovereignty, such as in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya. China contradicts its ‘non-interference’ policy when, for example, it imposes loan conditions on Angola stipulating that only 30% of construction contracts will be allocated to local companies.
Unfair and unequal trade as well as failed aid policies is what relations between Africa, the EU and China must confront and resolve.
The current European migration crisis is an example of how dishonesty can come back to haunt you. Africans drowning in the Mediterranean while searching for a better life and the insecurity currently pervading Europe are both the result of those unfair and unequal relations. Some African leaders are also to blame through their complicity in taking away the development rights of millions.
Africa, EU and China relations must be based on genuine cooperation and partnership. It is in the hands of Africans to make sure a fair deal is reached. It is in the broader interests of Europe and China to eschew narrow ‘national interests’ but Africa cannot expect any sudden change from them. It will be a struggle, but this time Africa must get a fair deal so it can claim the 21st century as an era of dignity for Africans.
1 World Bank. 2000. Can Africa Claim the 21st Century? World Bank Report.
2 The Economist, May 11, 2000 & The Economist, February 22, 2001.
3 The Economist, March 2, 2013.
4 McKinsey Global Institute, 2010. Lions on the move: The progress and potential of African economies.
5 Stiglitz, J. 2002. Globalisation and its Discontents, p. 9.
6 Saul, J.R. 2005. The Collapse of Globalism, pp. 17-18.
7 Chomsky, N. 2010. Hopes and Prospects, p. 15.
8 Papatheologou, V. 2014. EU, China, Africa towards a trilateral cooperation: Prospects and challenges for Africa’s development. Journal of African Studies and Development. Vol. 6(5), pp. 78-86.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies