China: President Hu's Africa Visit


Daniel Sun

Chinese President Hu Jintao is on his way to Africa for state visits to Cameroon, Liberia, Sudan, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and the Seychelles from 30 January 2007 to 10 February 2007. His visit comes only two months after the first Beijing Summit Meeting of the Sino-African Cooperation Forum, which witnessed a grand gathering of around forty heads of states from Africa in November 2006.

Hu's visit reflects China's sense of urgency and determination to revive its traditional ties with African countries and push such relations to a new high in a new era. It is also a chance to showcase China's success. It is expected that Hu will take the opportunity to promote his concept of a 'harmonious world' to his African counterparts and to dispel doubts and complaints over China. Chinese government officials used the following keywords to capture the message of Hu's Africa visit: 'consolidate traditional friendship, deepen mutually beneficial cooperation and achieve common development'. Hu will visit eight nations but the impact of his visit goes far beyond Africa.

Hu will push forward the implementation of the agreements reached during the Beijing summit, including the eight measures to benefit African countries, which he announced at the Summit. The implementation involves aid and investment to help African countries out of poverty, to reduce or remit taxation, and to set up pilot farms, medical centres as well as primary schools in rural areas. During the visit, Hu will attend three inauguration ceremonies, namely the China-Liberia Malaria Prevention Center, the China-Zambia economic cooperation region and a pilot program for agricultural technology in Mozambique.

The Taiwan factor is never far away. China has exercised its resolve not to give any room for international manoeuvring by Taiwan independence activists. Taiwan now has only 24 small countries that recognise it. In Africa, the remaining five countries with diplomatic ties with Taiwan are Burkina Faso, Malawi, Sao Tome and Principe, Swaziland and Gambia. Though Taiwan's links with all its partners seem fragile and faltering, China will be happy to see that number cut down even further when the pull factor from China is reinforced by the future benefits China can bring, thus outweighing Taiwan's dollar diplomacy.

Japan was the key factor that awakened China to its dangerously waning influence in Africa. In 2005, China, together with Korea and a few other countries, had been battling Japan for the support of African countries to curb Japan's ambition for a permanent member seat in the UN Security Council. After China achieved its goal at the United Nations with the shelving of the joint proposal by Japan, Germany, Brazil and India to reform the Security Council, China also realised that it was close to the point of running out of the goodwill accrued from Mao's legacy in Africa. Its long-cherished support from Africa could no longer be taken for granted.

During the more than two decades of reform and opening up in China, and particularly with its switch to a market economy, African affairs had from time to time been sidelined. The various unselfish and generous forms of assistance to Africa made available during the Mao era were no more; and, were after all not sustainable. China's traditional ideological appeal had given way to a disordered and haphazard trend towards democracy in African countries. This was coupled with their difficulties in perceiving the fast-evolving economic and ideological changes occurring in China. At times, Africa became no more than a battlefield between mainland China and Taiwan for diplomatic recognition. Even worse, when cheap Chinese manufactured goods flooded the world market, the negatively affected African countries had good reason to worry and complain.

This time round, changes in China's mode of assistance to Africa are expected, wherein the stress on mutual benefits and common development is more pronounced. The Chinese President will certainly reassure his African counterparts that China is not coming to Africa to exploit its natural and energy resources, but is seeking to offer a helping hand for the mutual benefit of the parties involved. He is expected to explain China's new strategy to transform its mode of foreign trade by upgrading to more value-added goods, leaving more room to breathe for African countries. Most importantly, his concept of a 'harmonious world' should appeal to war-torn and ethnic-conflict-ridden countries, against the backdrop of reported 'clashes between civilizations'. For poverty stricken sub-Saharan African countries, they look forward to learning from China's successful experience in the hope of breaking out of the cycle of poverty in which they have been entrapped.

WATCHPOINT: The impact of China's renewed role as a major diplomatic player on the global stage will be watched from many quarters.


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