China has changed Western world’s dis­course on Africa

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By AN­DREW MOODY

an­drew­moody@chi­nadaily. com.cn

Alex Vines be­lieves China has shaken up a Western ap­proach to Africa that was stuck in a time warp.

The head of the Africa Pro­gramme at Chatham House, Europe’s largest for­eign pol­icy think tank, said the world’s sec­ond-largest econ­omy has proved over the past decade that the con­ti­nent is a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity and not just a donor re­cip­i­ent.

“There was mostly a hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­course that was more about aid than trade. It was look­ing at the con­ti­nent not as an op­por­tu­nity but as a risk. China has com­pletely changed that dis­course.

“China has forced com­pla­cent Euro­pean coun­tries — which as ex-colo­nial pow­ers thought they un­der­stood Africa very well — to re­think their strat­egy for the con­ti­nent.”

China’s eco­nomic en­gage­ment with Africa has grown ex­po­nen­tially since the turn of the cen­tury and the gov­ern­ment ex­pects the stock of out­ward di­rect in­vest­ment to quadru­ple to $100 bil­lion with trade also dou­bling by 2020.

Vines, 50, be­lieves China has been suc­cess­ful be­cause it has had a grand strat­egy for Africa, forc­ing its com­pa­nies to go out and set up busi­ness oper­a­tions there.

“The go­ing-out process was one that was pushed by the state and that is why it dif­fers from that of In­dia and other coun­tries that have been en­gaged in Africa. It is a state plan and not driven by the pri­vate sec­tor.”

He said it is no longer pos­si­ble for Euro­pean and other coun­tries to fol­low such a strat­egy. “Grand strate­gies are prob­a­bly bet­ter for big coun­tries like China since it is rich enough and such big un­der­tak­ings tend to be quite messy.

“Im­pe­rial Bri­tain had a grand strat­egy that worked since you had an over­rid­ing guid­ing prin­ci­ple that if you stum­bled on Coun­try X, you were go­ing to col­o­nize it.”

Vines, who has headed the Africa Pro­gramme for more than a decade, over­sees a team of nine full-time staff as well as af­fil­i­ates.

“Last year we had more than 140 meet­ings on Africa,” said Vines. “We are a char­ity not­for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion and the ma­jor­ity of our work is in the public do­main. We pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive anal­y­sis of African pol­i­tics. We host meet­ings with heads of state, gov­ern­ment min­is­ters, op­po­si­tion and civil so­ci­ety lead­ers.

“In terms of an in­de­pen­dent think tank we have more peo­ple work­ing on Africa than many other com­pa­ra­ble in­sti­tu­tions. The Africa Pro­gramme is in­creas­ingly keen to forge links with Chi­nese in­sti­tu­tions, in­clud­ing re­cent dis­cus­sions with the Bei­jing For­eign Stud­ies Univer­sity.

“We have just had a del­e­ga­tion from a Chi­nese think tank. I think you have in China quite a lot of Africa cen­ters ap­pear­ing in Chi­nese univer­si­ties but they tend to be quite small. It is from a low base but is grow­ing.”

Vines, although Bri­tish, was born in Can­berra, and had a peri­patetic child­hood with his par­ents mov­ing around the world, in­clud­ing Mexico, where he did some of his pri­mary school ed­u­ca­tion.

He later went to a pri­vate school in the UK, mov­ing on to study ar­chae­ol­ogy at York Univer­sity, fol­lowed by a master’s in South­ern African stud­ies.

His first po­si­tion was as with the Bri­tish In­sti­tute in Eastern Africa in Nairobi fol­lowed by a se­ries of roles which in­volved liv­ing in Africa.

He went on to work in a num­ber of United Na­tions roles, in­clud­ing be­ing a weapons in­spec­tor in war-torn Liberia.

Vines said there has seen a ma­jor shift of em­pha­sis in terms of how Africa is viewed over a gen­er­a­tion.

“It used to be seen just through the lens of Cold War pol­i­tics and it was all about strate­gic min­er­als. If you un­der­stood what Soviet pol­icy was and what Western pol­icy was, then you also un­der­stood Africa.”

One of the most con­tentious is­sues among Euro­pean coun­tries — as they en­dure aus­ter­ity — is whether they should still set aside 0.7 per­cent of their GNI for over­seas de­vel­op­ment aid.

The goal was orig­i­nally set in 1970 and reaf­firmed at the Gle­nea­gles G8 sum­mit in 2005 but last year only six coun­tries — Swe­den, Lux­em­bourg, Nor­way, Den­mark, the Nether­lands and the UK — met the tar­get.

At the re­cent UK gen­eral elec­tion, hav­ing such a tar­get was ve­he­mently op­posed by the UK In­de­pen­dence Party among oth­ers.

“I am not against the 0.7 per­cent tar­get, in par­tic­u­lar. I do think the way it is used and tar­geted at has to be thought about.” Vines said.

“If the whole thing is fron­tend loaded and you have to just hit this fig­ure, that is no good. The qual­ity of the spend­ing mat­ters. Some­times it is the small amounts of money given to spe­cific projects that can have the great­est ef­fect.”

Vines said another ex­ter­nal im­pact on African coun­tries is of­ten sanc­tions im­posed upon them by the United Na­tions.

“It is not by co­in­ci­dence that there are more sanc­tions im­posed on Africa than any other part of the world be­cause it is eas­ier. There are fewer strate­gic in­ter­ests in Africa. You can­not get a UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion on Syria, for ex­am­ple, or any­where in the Mid­dle East, whereas with many African coun­tries it is much more straight­for­ward.”

One of the ma­jor African se­cu­rity fears is that the so­called Is­lamic State, hav­ing got a foothold in Libya, will push south­wards into Nige­ria.

“I think that is the sin­gle big­gest fear that pol­i­cy­mak­ers have,” said Vines. “I think Boko Haram are on a weak­en­ing tra­jec­tory at present and now with the elec­tion and swear­ing in of Gen­eral Buhari (as Nige­rian pres­i­dent), he will fo­cus on the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion in the north.”

“Will IS find a foothold in that en­vi­ron­ment? I think it will be dif­fi­cult for them, given that their sup­ply lines would be­come very long and that they would stick out very vis­i­bly in a Nige­rian con­text.”

Vines is not un­crit­i­cal of China’s eco­nomic in­volve­ment in Africa, and he be­lieves Chi­nese com­pa­nies need to use more African work­ers.

“There needs to be more lo­cal con­tent gen­er­ally. There are about a mil­lion Chi­nese work­ing on con­struc­tion projects in Africa at the mo­ment. In An­gola the sin­gle largest im­port is ce­ment from China. That is bonkers. An­gola should be pro­duc­ing its own ce­ment.”

Vines in­sists, how­ever, that it is up to African gov­ern­ments how they han­dle their re­la­tion­ship with China and other ris­ing Asian pow­ers.

“Some of the po­lit­i­cal elites see it as a way to ex­tract short­term value, oth­ers have a longterm de­vel­op­men­tal vi­sion and there are oth­ers who are very clever at play­ing off China against In­dia.”

NICK J.B. MOORE / FOR CHINA DAILY

Alex Vines

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