A significant focus of China’s efforts on the continent on Africa throughout much of the 20th Century was because of a clash of ideology and fierce competition with what it still regards as its ‘Renegade Province’, Taiwan. China and Taiwan have now competed with one another for over fifty years.
Before 1971 when the People’s Republic of China replaced Taiwan in the United Nations, the Republic of China (Taiwan) enjoyed recognition from a majority of the nations of the world. However today there are only about 30 countries that recognise Taipei’s claim to nationhood. In Taiwan’s effort for International recognition it has fostered through what some call ‘Dollar Diplomacy’ relationships in Africa which the PRC has found hard to stomach.
The African continent became a Chess board for the game playing itself out between Beijing and Taipei. As a result some African states have become adept at playing the rivals off against one another in order to maiximise their advantage and to gain the largest loan, grant or amount of technological expertise. This game for Africa has been a major determining factor in the politics of Chinese involvement on the continent for much of the 20th century.
This squabble over allegiances is not new to many African states, which during the Cold War played off the United States and the Soviet Union who were also seeking alliances which would aid them with any confrontations at the United Nations. Although many poor African states are adept in taking advantage of major powers wanting influence or resources, many aren’t able to refuse them outright.
Africa is made up of over 50 countries, most of which are characterized by having a very low Gross National Income, some containing within (and without) their boundaries ethnic/racial conflict and a host unstable governments. Many therfore have been unable to refuse being drawn into the remote dispute over the sovereignty of the island of Taiwan.
Foreign aid and assistance to Africa from China is made with an insistence that the country in receipt of the aid does not in any way recognise the government in Taipei. As Philip Liu writing in the Harvard Asia Quarterly points out;
“Beijing’s communiqué with recently independent Eritrea promised “not to establish official relations with Taiwan”. In 1996, the wording was more direct. Beijing praised Niger’s promise to not establish official relations with Taiwan. In the 1998 communiqué for the resuming of diplomatic relations with the Central African Republic the PRC emphasized that “Taiwan is a province of the PRC”, and “the effectiveness of UN resolution 2758”.
Another example of China politicising development and investment is raised by Chris Alden writing in 2005 who notes that in 1997 Chad declared recognition of the Taipei government which came on the back of a $125 Million loan from Taiwan. China as a result quickly withdrew diplomatic contact and most alarmingly for the Chadian’s – aid .
South Africa with the most prominant national economy in Africa, had recognised the problem of the two China’s competing on the continent and under the leadership of Nelson Mandela took the pragmatic approach of adopting a ‘dual recognition’ policy. This continued for sometime but eventually led to the Chinese government to promise more aid assistance and South Africa eventually recognising only the government in Beijing.
Foreign Aid is now the only real window that the government in Taipei has left to exploit as it takes on the might of the Chinese mainland in the battle for international recognition as it has lost its seat on most international bodies. With the already large and growing size of the Chinese economy there is perhaps an inevitability that it will be able at least in the short term win over many developing countries in Africa in not recognising the independence aspirations that many on the island of Taiwan hold. It should be pointed out however that the more countries mainland China wins over in Africa the fewer resources it has to spend on them. This may in turn give Taipei the opportunity to bounce back as it has comparatively more resources to spend on fewer countries.
It should also be noted that there is a growing resentment in parts of Africa over China’s role on the continent. The Taiwanese government is at least democratically accountable at home and a distinction made in its investments and trade practices to Africa may bear fruit in the long run.
The interaction between China and Africa throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st has been largely a product of their shared Colonial histories. Both the continent of Africa and the state of China have had to battle not only with foreign colonisers but also with restoration of pride bought about by periods of overseas rule.
China’s system of Confucianism which pictured China not as a nation state but as a civilisation at the centre of the world was soon challenged when European traders started appearing off its coast. The Chinese were sometimes able to ignore the advanced military powers of the world and they weren’t always threatened by the culture of the West, however the two combined became impossible to ignore. China it realised was no longer at the centre of the universe.
Alternative ideas of China were sought by the country that had lost its self identity. Nationalism was implanted in the Chinese psyche during the process of colonisation in the 19th Century. The Peoples Republic of China was formed at a time when much of Asia and Africa was still under the influence of predominantly European powers. China’s early world view, much in line with that of the USSR was that the world was now divided into two camps, that of the Imperialists and that of the Socialists. This world view despite some differences and a later falling out with that of the USSR has been a key tool ever since in China’s dealings with the rest of the world. It was the USSR that had the clear advantage of approaching Africa at the outset of the Cold War with a clear anti-colonial message but as Nana Poku writing in 2001 noted;
“By the end of the 1980’s both Superpowers were engaged in Africa for much of the same reasons as the European powers had occupied it a hundred years earlier; ‘buried treasure’, and fear of each other”
As African economies were restricted in the colonial times to serve European economies, then history in a sense was repeating itself. The example of Angola during the Cold War is one where a resource rich country is torn apart by post colonial conflict, which at one stage was fuelled by the USA, USSR and South Africa.
China saw an opportunity and re-aligned itself as the self proclaimed leader of the developing world and promoted itself to African states as an equal with a shared sense of national humiliation and eager to promote socialist ideals whilst implanting a mistrust of the West.
During the 1950’s and the 1960’s China eagerly exported its ideas on development to Africa. In countries with warm relations and sympathetic leaderships China invested money and manpower throughout much of this period. Achievements on the continent included the Tan-Zam Railway from the coast of Tanzania to Lusaka in Zambia and with it the linking of two of China’s closest partners in Sub Saharan Africa during this period.
Chinese attitudes however began to change at the end of the 1970’s. With the death of the Chinese leader Chairman Mao and with Chinese membership of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) the Chinese stance towards Africa altered. China had withdrawn from Africa to an extent throughout the 1970’s to focus more on its own developing economy. Its Foreign policy began to turn to one that placed more stress on friendly bi-lateral relations with nation states and their leaderships with less regard for any ideological orientation.
In his enlightening book ‘The Star Raft’ Philip Snow outlines what he thinks to be the three stages of contact that China has gone through with Africa.
- The first is during the age of Empire’s, specifically those in Europe and their expansion and contact with Asia. China during this time established trade links with Africa over the sea and also by land via India. Since Western interests began to recede in Africa following the colonial era early contacts that China had made and maintained with the continent were then renewed and strengthened.- The Cold War is the period that Philip Snow refers to as the second stage during the 20th Century when China competed with the Soviet Union and the West in an ideological battle on the continent.
- The third stage he argues is the current time and the changing nature of Chinese involvement in Africa where arguably old models of socialism have taken a back seat and the prevailing force of the market and the race for natural resources has come to the fore.
The third stage of Chinese involvement in the continent of Africa it could be argued started with the events in Tianamen Square in June 1989. After June 4th 1989 Western criticism of China was fierce. However Chinas now imbedded relationship with Africa showed and the African response was noticeably muted. As Ian Taylor wrote, the Angolan foreign minister expressed “support for the resolute actions to quell the counter-revolutionary rebellion”.
The events of that day did not impact on China’s standing in the Developing World as it did with the West. This gave China a renewed emphasis from what had been a standpoint of neglect with its relations with African states. There seemed to be still a ‘third World solidarity’ which China had worked to foster in the mid twentieth century. It was thought throughout much of the Developing World at the time that the attitude of the West in relation to the events in Tianamen Square was such because it wanted to halt China’s advance. The Chinese communist notion that people and personal rights come a second place to ‘economic rights’ and the ‘rights of subsistence’ had a resonance with much of Africa. There was too an understanding that to criticise Beijing may jeopardise future aid and investment. China still though needed to reaffirm relations with Africa and since 1992 Chinese foreign ministers have been making annual trips to Africa. Chinese aid in the post-Tianamen era increased as China tried to win over allies. This has helped cement relations which China is able to exploit to this day. It has also helped to act as a bulwark against Western interference.
Since the Cold War world China has emerged as a growing World power and is basking in it’s continued role as a torch bearer for the Developing World as well as at the same time being the only global check to virtually omnipresent US power. As Ian Taylor noted in 1998 “Relations with countries where Beijing was formally involved in support of the liberation process, such as Namibia and Mozambique are now firmly based on the promotion of commercial activity.”
China’s growing power has been as the result of massive investment, new internal focus and the membership of World trade bodies. The resulting economic growth has created a hunger for resources and many argue as a consequence a revival during the late 1990’s up until the present day of Chinese involvement in Africa.
Today China deals with Africa based upon it as being an economic and raw material resource. As Howard French writing in the New York Times puts it;
“At one time many African countries, whether colonies locked in liberation struggles or fledgling, often non-aligned states viewed China as a progressive ally and counterweight to the west. But those days are gone, and increasingly, China’s involvement in Africa is pure big business.”