Meetings of the China-Africa Forum are usually the last place you would expect to find controversy, but South Africa’s Jacob Zuma didn’t get that memo, evidently. Zuma raised serious warnings about China’s presence in Africa at last Thursday’s meeting:
Jacob Zuma, the South African president, has warned that the unbalanced nature of Africa’s burgeoning trade ties with China is “unsustainable” in the long term. . . .“Africa’s commitment to China’s development has been demonstrated by supply of raw materials, other products and technology transfer,” Mr Zuma said. “This trade pattern is unsustainable in the long term. Africa’s past economic experience with Europe dictates a need to be cautious when entering into partnerships with other economies.”
It’s rare indeed to hear anything but kind words at these kinds of international diplomacy-fests, so the fact that Zuma raised his concerns in the presence of a full Chinese delegation is significant.China has been building economic and political ties in Africa since before the end of the Cold War. Many have criticized China of using neocolonialist practices to exploit Africa’s resources and force an unbalanced trading relationship on the continent.Americans may be concerned about Chinese support for ugly regimes, but any investment in Africa is a good thing. America’s interest from a political, economic, and humanitarian point of view must be in the economic development of Africa and the unleashing of the potential of its people. Infrastructure, education, development of resources: all good. There is plenty of work to be done, and if China is ready and willing to pick up the slack, so much the better.China is coming up on the learning curve in Africa. It is one thing to run around buying commodity resources and building highways and railroads to connect your mines to the ports. Its something else entirely to manage the consequences of your investments and to deal with the political and social demands people make on big foreign investors. Since World War II, the world system has come a long way in terms of working out codes of conduct and basic rules for foreign investment. The more China experiences the social and political blow-back that comes with this territory, the more it is likely to see the point of various things other governments, including our own, have been doing to try to promote transparency.No doubt, it’s going to be messy and will take awhile, but China’s Africa experiences are an important part of the process through which it can ultimately complete its emergence as a responsible stakeholder in the world system.