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Dante Paradiso
The more interesting question for Washington policymakers, and the
question implicit in the preoccupation with the China-Africa dynamic,
is what China's relations with African states and regional
institutions may tell us more broadly about Chinese foreign policy in
emerging regions. Toward that end, China's recent engagement in Africa
is characterized by incrementalism, pragmatism and exceptionalism.


The People's Republic of China's unprecedented worldwide economic
expansion in the years after its World Trade Organization accession
created abundant opportunities for U.S.-China coordination,
cooperation or collaboration on matters peripheral to bilateral
relations, such as trilateral regional engagement outside the
Asia-Pacific.

The thrust of U.S. policy over that span has been to encourage China
to participate fully, not selectively, in the response to common
international challenges and in the (re)enforcement of international
norms. In African affairs, however, China has been reluctant to
synchronize policy.

Next month, Chinese and African leaders will convene in Beijing for
the fifth iteration of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC),
a triennial ministerial that will again draw the attention of those
Western cognoscenti who have monitored the intensification of
Sino-African ties over the last dozen years.

In the press and academia, Chinese activities in Africa have been
catalogued, and their effects on African practices in trade,
development and human rights analyzed, most often in normative terms,
in order to compare and contrast the efficacy of Chinese and Western
engagement with Africa.

Such analysis often overlooks this: Africans will determine the terms
on which they receive China in Africa.

The more interesting question for Washington policymakers, and the
question implicit in the preoccupation with the China-Africa dynamic,
is what China's relations with African states and regional
institutions may tell us more broadly about Chinese foreign policy in
emerging regions. Toward that end, China's recent engagement in Africa
is characterized by incrementalism, pragmatism and exceptionalism.

Incrementalism. The explosive growth in China-Africa commerce is
fueled by the extractive industries, producing nearly balanced trade.
China seeks to correct imbalances in other areas through concessional
loans, funding for joint ventures and foreign direct investment. Its
own experience with special economic zones (SEZs) informed its
decision to establish six SEZs with African partners.

It also created a multibillion dollar fund to incentivize investment
by Chinese firms in Africa. This state-supported, incremental approach
- which is neither slow nor small - applies across all sectors.
Likewise, China's military ties in Africa advance through accretive
contributions to peacekeeping operations, increased military training
and the equipping of foreign militaries. It's anti-piracy operations
in the Gulf of Aden provide a pilot for future blue water naval
capabilities.

Pragmatism. Prior to 2001, China's relations with African states were
long characterized by ideological solidarity and cultural exchange. As
China's economic growth overseas accelerated, it strengthened ties
with governments across the ideological spectrum, confident that it
can navigate political transitions when necessary.

In Sudan, China for years backed a unified state, but recognized South
Sudan on its establishment and sought to strengthen ties with the new
nation even after conflict reignited between north and south.

Exceptionalism. In African affairs, China works far more in parallel
with than within the current architecture of the international system
and distances itself from policies that are too closely identified
with Western interests.

China's approach stands out in every important aspect: design, scope
and impact. FOCAC is distinguishable from other international
initiatives because it covers comprehensively political, economic and
social ties and does not include traditional institutional partners,
such as the World Bank.

China's loans, tariff reductions, debt forgiveness and SEZs are
largely outside frameworks established by the international financial
institutions.

These are not attempts to position China within the international
system, but alongside it.

Similarly, Chinese diplomatic initiatives are often done without prior
coordination with other international stakeholders. China selectively
works with multilateral institutions, on its terms.

China opted for exceptionalism despite rarely being in direct economic
competition with the West, save in certain cases in the extractive
industries. This suggests that China is not content to be a
stakeholder in the current world order: it actively seeks a different
world order.

For Washington policymakers, "China-Africa" analysis should be viewed
primarily as a tool to better understand China, not Africa states. At
the next FOCAC, China will refine and amplify its commitments to
Africa. Later in the year, China's leadership succession will provide
greater insight into its global intentions. However, the structure of
China's approach to Africa is unlikely to change.

The implications for U.S. policy are several.

First, China's incremental approach tips the emphasis and direction of
Chinese policy in emerging regions. The United States should be
particularly sensitive to any significant increase in alternative
currency swap arrangements with African states, or other monetary
moves, that undermine the reserve currency status of the U.S. dollar.
Basing agreements between China and African states might indicate the
nature of China's future force posture.

Second, its pragmatism means that outcomes are not preordained.
Understanding how China assesses and prioritizes its interests will
provide the best indication of the direction of Chinese policy in
emerging regions.

Finally, the emphasis in discussion on matters peripheral to the
U.S.-China bilateral relationship may have to shift from cooperation
to the management of friction. Two independent approaches to regional
affairs do not necessarily equate to conflict or competition, but
risks increase where norms cannot be reconciled and systems are closed
to each other.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 June 2012 17:49
 

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