Chinese activity in Africa is increasing at an exponential rate. The gathering of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing in high-level meetings on 1-5 November 2006, with forty-eight African heads of state or government in attendance, is a striking illustration of this trend. It has many less visible elements. The China-Africa Business Council, for example, estimates that China is now Africa's third most important trading partner, behind the United States and France but ahead of Britain.
The burgeoning of Sino-African links is attested almost every day by fresh news stories and research. The Institute for Public Policy Research's "The New Sinosphere: China in Africa", published on 1 November 2006, is only the latest in a stream of reports.
But if the China dimension is becoming the main topic of interest vis-à-vis Africa's international relations, China's relatively casual stance towards the liberal norms of human rights and democracy is increasingly attracting criticism. Beijing's studious assertion of the sacrosanct nature of state sovereignty and its no-questions-asked policies towards human rights and democracy (cast by Beijing as a respect for the principle of "non-interference") have meant that China has been condemned for flirting with dictators and autocrats whom Africa would be better off without.
The China effect
It is convenient to dismiss China's perceived amoralism as fitting the long-term pattern of foreigners' interaction with Africa. At one level this is true: after all, French policy towards the continent has never been guided by "liberty, equality and fraternity", and other western actors in Africa do not exactly possess exemplary records. Washington's relations with (say) Libya, Algeria or Ethiopia are equally not guided by concerns over democracy.
If business is business, criticism of China's diplomacy in Africa is somewhat hypocritical. But this is not the whole story. There is arguably a growing consensus among the more serious governments in Africa of where they wish the continent to be heading. The evidence includes the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), which has been enthusiastically pushed by a select number of countries in Africa, and by the G8, as a means to stimulate a putative "African renaissance".
Nepad has faced the growing pains of any new organisation in the continent, but it has succeeded in making Africa's development part of the international agenda. Its political and economic programme aimed at promoting democracy, stability, good governance, human rights and economic development is a valuable codification of the continent's needs.
The African Union too has sought to further a progressive, reformist dynamic in the continent. So far, however, the nature of China's involvement in Africa - even though it professes support for these organisations - has undercut the efforts of these Africa-centred initiatives to make government and business more transparent and accountable.
The fact that there is real concern within Africa of Chinese activities sheds a different light on an issue so often seen through the lens of accusations of western hypocrisy. Moreover, China is not immune from accusations of more direct exploitation. A car-bomb attack in April 2006 near an oil refinery in Nigeria's delta region was specifically aimed as a warning against Chinese expansion in the region. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) stated: "We wish to warn the Chinese government and its oil companies to steer well clear of the Niger Delta. The Chinese government by investing in stolen crude places its citizens in our line of fire."
There is evidence that the granting by host governments of special favours and protection to the Chinese is fuelling African citizens' resentment. The anti-Chinese riots in Zambia before and after campaigning for the election in September 2006 - a campaign in which China criticised the leading opposition candidate over his stance on Taiwan - attest to this. The government in Beijing cannot forever think that dallying with African leaders regardless of their legitimacy carries no danger of a backlash from frustrated and excluded locals.
Also in openDemocracy on the relationship between China and Africa:
Chris Melville & Olly Owen, "China and Africa: a new era of south-south' cooperation"
(8 July 2005)
Ben Schiller, "The China model"
(20 December 2005)
Leni Wild, "China, Africa, and the G8: the missing link"
(11 July 2006)
Business and morality
The key for policymakers, both western and African, who genuinely seek a brighter future for the continent is to become skilled at cooperating with China when it abides by governance norms and on matters of mutual concern. Encouraging Chinese involvement in United Nations peacekeeping operations in Africa, financial backing for the nascent African Union and the mitigation of environmental damage are relatively straightforward areas of collaboration.
But, if and when China breaches broad governance standards, it is important for significant African leaders themselves to take a lead in highlighting the disjuncture between Chinese activities and the norms expected and promoted by African initiatives such as Nepad.
China is adept at ignoring or stigmatising western criticism of its foreign policy or human-rights record. It would be much harder for Beijing to react in this way if African leaders consistently hold China to account with regard to transparency and human rights.
In particular, the ultimately unsustainable strategy of courting dictators in key resource-rich African states needs to be emphasised. When Africa's more serious governments start to pursue such an approach - difficult though it may be, when so much is at stake - it will become possible to change China's oil safari from the amorality of "business is business" into something more tangible and positive for Africa and its peoples.
It is clear that in the long-term, a stable and prosperous Africa is in Beijing's interest. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing is evidence enough that China is in Africa to stay. The rest of the world should not ignore or stigmatise China in Africa: the only feasible strategy is to engage.