Guest Post by Tshepo Masita

Over the past decade, China’s foreign policy has focused on rapidly intensifying its engagement with Africa. The rapid rise of China as a global economic player and its engagement with African countries has resulted in an increasing number of publications and debates. The development of this relationship is of considerable importance – whether viewed from an African, Chinese, or international perspective.

The Maoist-Third Worldism school of thought appears to the be the most reasonable hypothesis for this nascent Sino-African relationship, particularly when attempting to give an honest analysis of international class struggles apart from assessing the relationship through other lenses (realism or idealism).

Furthermore, a common Maoist (Third Worldism) synthesis would generally position China as a developing economy that is primarily driven by a desire for greater solidarity and camaraderie in certain parts of the world. Mao has audaciously positioned China’s conceptual and ideological bearing alongside an anti-colonial and an anti-imperialistic conduct, which has perpetually fostered the discourse to be negotiated in the direction of Third-Worldism.

However, a close study of the literature on China’s foreign policy towards Africa reveals a scanty and unsystematic treatment of human rights, thereby causing a large degree of mixed emotions among assessors. For pessimists, China represents a threat to sustainable African development (especially by ignoring human rights and human security), while for optimists it presents a tantalizing opportunity for the growth and independence of Africa countries.

Alternatively, the Gramscian theory of hegemony mainly underscores the nuanced features of power and jettisons the prominent notion that power exists in independent configurations. For Antonio Gramsci, power and hegemony in the more generic sense relates the practice of ruling by consent, as well as the ‘traditional and intellectual leadership’ attained by a specific class, in a social stratum and is contained in a larger scheme of class dominance and control.

As a result, Chinese representatives are extremely prickly about any association of their state to lexes, for example such as a “Great Power”. Considerably to a great degree this concern is stuck in the imprecision and haziness that is deep-seated in those expressions as well as their association with views of strong-armed harassment and supremacy.

More so China’s foreign policy towards Africa is mainly shaped by an imperative and uncompromising stance of non-interference in the domestic matters of other states. African countries and governments have thus enthusiastically embraced China’s ‘friendship’. They see this rekindled relationship as a golden opportunity to escape Western domination and make the West less relevant to Africa. Therefore, African leaders perceive China as treating them with respect by not interfering with their internal affairs through its policy of non-interference. They too appreciate the Chinese approach that does not prickle them with such political and humanitarian conditionality.

However, China is too often accused of supporting a string of despots, nuclear proliferators, and genocidal regimes, as well as shielding them from international pressure and thus reversing progress on human rights and humanitarian principles. To further attest the abovementioned claim was China’s global military exports and influences that have grown considerably between 2008 and 2009, thus causing international human rights advocates to vigorously protest the Chinese myriad weapons alliances with ‘illegitimate’ regimes in Africa.

The defective nature of the Chinese policies was further exacerbated when the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that China was among the largest suppliers of major arms to Sub-Saharan Africa since 1996. From 1996 to date, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Uganda and Kenya were among the ten largest importers of major arms. Between 2001 and 2010 Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Kenya were the highest importers. This is a clear indication that Chinese policy makers need to be more sensitive to the impact of China’s engagement in Africa’s internal affairs, which they have failed to do over the past years. This largely flouts the Maoist inclination to proper third-world co-operation and solidarity.

China’s issue of aid is also important to discuss. International organizations and bilateral aid agencies from traditional donors have made their assistance conditional on good governance in Africa. China, on the contrary, always makes a clear distinction between economics and politics in its interventions in Africa. China’s no conditionality aid leads China to support undemocratic regimes, raising concerns about its contribution to the development of governance in African countries.

However, several Chinese scholars argue that in recent years China has become more flexible in its interpretation of non-interference and is willing to take a more active diplomatic role in the resolution of internal conflicts in Africa.

But there are still important limitations to the “new” Chinese stance. China has not undergone an underlying shift in values. Its economic interests remain paramount, and it still does not share Washington’s views about human rights or democracy. China has little experience of engaging in conflicts overseas (particularly in Africa) and remains reluctant to take the lead. More generally, China’s bilateral influence should not be overemphasized because it cannot magically solve conflicts alone. Therefore, non-interference and sovereignty will remain at the core of China’s engagement.

More so, the “Gramscian” chronicle of consensual hegemony may possibly make for a well-intentioned metaphor for China’s role in Africa for the purpose that China’s desire for global hegemony seems to be a credible way of describing their original interest.

Author: Tshepo is an alumni of the University of the Free State and holds a degree in Governance with major specialisation in Political Economics. He also holds an Honours degree in International Relations, as well as a Master’s degree in Governance. He has over the years acquired more than 4 years experience in lecturing on different levels. His experience covers teaching Political Science and International Relations at the University of the Free State. Tshepo currently work as a political researcher for the EFF in the Free State.