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Bridging the Best Between Asia and Africa

ChinAfrica the Unlikely Union. Opportunities and Current Perils

ChinAfrica the Unlikely Union. Opportunities and Current Perils

Introduction / Brief History

The first documented interaction between China and Africa dates back to 1405 to 1433, when the Han dynasty general, Zheng He sailed all the way to East Africa. But one of the major Geo-political developments of the early 21st century is the emergence of China as Africa's leading partner for cooperation, trade and investment, which overtook traditional allies such as France, the UK or the U.S.

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The new Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) from China has added a global interest and an increased attention to the growing China - Africa collaboration.

The historical interaction that the world is witnessing is causing different reactions from different stakeholders in Africa, depending on expectations or the interests affected.

  • From the African perspective, there is hope for development and expectation to be lifted up from poverty with much needed infrastructure, investment, trade and much more.  

  • Looking from the Chinese side, Africa is an opportunity for new market, strategic Alliance and global influence.

  • As far as the West (Europe and America) is concerned, it seems to be a feeling of being worried, uneasy, uncomfortable and challenged on their traditional control of Africa and its resources.

  • Other emerging Asian powers (Singapore, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand) are observing the Chinese game in Africa with great interest ready to take advantage of potential opportunities by jumping on the bandwagon.

  • More independent countries like India, Japan and the Middle East and Israel are devising their own strategies in Africa based on various motivations.

The purpose of this blog is to cover the opportunities, challenges and perils on the road for this unlikely union. How did it all build up? What has been achieved so far? What are the pitfalls and what can be the way forward?  

Common Political and Ideological Interest (Communism and Anti Capitalism)

The contemporary relation between China and Africa mainly dates back to the Cold War Era and the African Independence Movements. The relationship's main element was due to the common ideology of Communism at that time. Later, China provided the newly independent African countries with military and financial assistance in order to gain geopolitical support and influence at the general assembly of the United Nations.

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Since the Chinese were one of the most unselfish supporters during the African liberation movement, many of its culture, ideologies and entertainment were embraced such as

  • The Teachings of Confucianism

Confucius was a Chinese philosopher and politician in around 500 to 600 BC. His teachings emphasized human morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity. Confucianism(His Teachings) has been greatly adapted by the Chinese culture, and is what shapes the standard of Chinese moral actions and social relationships.

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In many aspects, Confucianism is very close to African traditional values and created a common ground for potential common understanding. On this day, it may not be a surprise to notice that the Confucius Institute has more than 80 centers distributed around 41 African countries.

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  • Fascination for Chinese Martial Art (Kung Fu)  

Kung Fu originally refers to any study or practice which requires a lot of patience, energy and time to achieve. However, many people know Kung Fu as a martial art. The proper term of “Chinese Martial Art” is zhōngguó wǔshù(中國武術), which is a generic term . There are many forms of Kung fu, such as Shaolin Kung fu, Wing Chun, Tai Chi, and etc.

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Kung Fu began gaining popularity over Hollywood and mainstream action films. Famous Kung Fu actors such as Bruce Lee and Jet Li portrayed an image of self discipline and self reliance. It resonated with many oppressed black audiences, because of the message of resistance, hope, courage and resilience.

Kung Fu also conveys values of hard work, dedication, sacrifice, and respect of elders, teachers and community. This similarity is particularly important to understand the African embracement of the Chinese.

It is a striking difference with the model of superhero or champion that the West has imported in Africa and which has marked the psyche of the African population. The difference can be seen in mainstream entertainment icons such as Bruce Lee and Superman. Bruce Lee embodies the values of hard work, discipline and possibility for everyone to achieve greatness. However, Superman embodies the values of individual superiority, chosen one and God given powers.

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Trade & Investment

The Trade and Investment policy started with the one country, two systems declaration from the former prime minister Deng Xiao Ping. It is practically the official embrace of Chinese capitalism economic development model, while maintaining the fundamentals of the communist ideology.

Deng Xiao Ping outlined a very innovative plan referred to as “The Strategy of 24 Characters(個 字符 戰略).” These principles were a guide for China’s foreign policy since the 1990s.

The 24 Character Strategy (translation)

Chinese

观察平静安全的位置

冷静地处理此事

的隐藏和能力

以节省时间

是好的,保持低调

从来没有申报的领导者。

English

Calm observation

Security of position

Deal with business calmly

Hide your ability and save time

Be good and keep a low profile

Never declare yourself a leader

From there, China developed a global proactive policy and began expanding its Foreign Aid Program. Its purpose was to strategically deploy assistance in developing countries such as Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Russia, and Africa to gain influence, geopolitical support and control.  According to AidData, China has spent over $354.3 billion in a span of 15 years from 2000 to 2014 and the number continues to grow.

Africa was immensely integrated into the new Chinese strategic vision for global influence.The Continent is considered the richest in mineral wealth and has the biggest capacity for new businesses. Chinese were not the only one investing into Africa, but it was a goldmine for the wealthy and powerful countries. For example the number of Foreign Development Investments (FDI) projects in Africa increased 20% in 2018 to $50billion from $41billion in 2017.

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In the beginning, most of the Chinese aid funds for the African countries were provided through the Chinese Official Development Assistance(ODA). The ODA funds gave support for humanitarian programs, financial loans, health care, and education. Africa is the destination for 7 of the top 10 recipients of the Chinese ODA.

The Chinese ODA faced limitations and challenges. There were limits on investment and trade due to regulations set by the previous colonial powers. Therefore, the Chinese have created an action plan “Forum on China-Africa Cooperation(FOCAC).” The objectives of the conference are Equal consultation, enhancing understanding, expanding consensus, strengthening friendship and promoting cooperation.

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The official Ministerial consultation meeting was held in July 2001, in Lusaka, capital of Zambia, at which the Procedures for Follow-up Mechanisms of FOCAC were adopted. There are different types of meetings between different levels, however the ministerial conference are held every 3 years.

This meeting officially allowed China to collaborate directly with Africa as a Continent. Trade and Investments grew exponentially without interference and limitations.

Infrastructure

Infrastructure, which Africa was lacking significantly, is the cornerstone of development. China mainly funded and built infrastructures for convenient transportation such as railways, roads, and ports around Africa.They have funded more than 6,200km (3,850 miles) of railways and over 5,000km of roads in Africa. For example

$4 billion investment fund on Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, a 750km line linking landlocked Ethiopia to Djibouti on the coast of the Red Sea.

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In progress is a $3.2 billion 472km railway between Kenya’s port city of Mombasa and its capital, Nairobi. It also has a plan to extend the railway into 5 different countries.

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A plan of building a “mega port” in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, a port in Lamu, Kenya, a six-lane highway in Uganda and a pipeline in Tanzania.

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The reason for this major investment in Africa may be due the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI)with a motto of “One Belt” “One Road”. Its purpose is to facilitate a bigger market and free movement of goods and services along Europe, Africa, and Asia. Many relate this project as the modernization of the “Silk Road.”

The Belt and Road Initiative would bring major changes to the global economy and businesses. It has its positives and negatives aspects.

Completion of the Initiative would reduce time and cost for foreign trade, which creates a much stronger connectivity between bordering countries, and more sufficient investment can be done. However, easier and faster access to different countries would require new policies, stronger security enforcement, and would complicate the business with countries without the access of BRI.

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Natural Resources

The main element of the Sino-African trade is the natural resources for infrastructure policy. African countries import enormous quantities of Chinese manufactured goods, such as electronics, machinery, and everyday products. In return, African countries supplies their natural resources to China.

The majority of China’s natural resources are from Africa. For example,

  • Oil  from Angola and Nigeria

  • Gold from Ghana

  • Chromium from South Africa

  • Copper from Zambia  

  • Rare minerals like bauxite from Guinea

As China relies on African countries for their natural resources, it is significantly important for China to maintain a good relationship with the Continent.

As of 2017, many of African countries has relied on China for most of their exports of natural resources in order to develop their cities. For example, countries like South Sudan, exports 95 percent of their crude petroleum to China.

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The dominance of China in the African exports may result in stronger connection between the Sino-African relationship. However, there is an imbalance to this barter trade. The deals don’t actually include any guarantee of the actual value countries would get in exchange of the commodities. Also, since there are no other competitive bidders, it lacks transparency as deals could be done in secrecy, which implies possible corruption and good governance issues.

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Challenges & Solutions

The Sino-African relationship as been formalized through agreements and contracts. However, the difference in culture, traditions, and the way of thinking have led to misunderstandings,  unintended issues and problems. The relationship should graduate from Government to Government (G to G) level, to Business to Business (B 2 B) and People to People(P to P).

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The China - Africa Unlikely union has caused many issues already identitified, that both parties have been trying to address, assisted by various organizations, experts, consulttansts, supported by the awareness campaign by both governments. Some of the issues are:

    • Cultural Gap

    • Communication (Language Barriers)

    • Time Factor (Historical time versus Cyclical time, which are both different from the Western linear time).

    • Human Factor (Assumption & Suspicion; Expectation & Disappointment)

    • Chinese contractors bringing own labor to executive projects

    • Taking African Opportunities and Jobs

    • Disrupting African fragile Industries (ex.textile)

    • Corruption

While some of the issues have been resolved, others have remained unsettled or have even worsened leading to current incidents. For instance,

  • Chinese oil companies were accused of running irresponsible operations that hurt local employees and sabotage the environment. Therefore The Chinese companies worked alongside to fund or actually bought natural resources from the local mining companies.

  • Civil War in Sudan affecting the Chinese people in Africa. Few employees working in the Oil fields of Sudan have been killed by the outbreak of civil war. It resulted in China deploying more “peacekeepers” into the oil fields. However, it proved more deadly and resulting in more deaths. The deaths currently count to 16 Chinese nationals.

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The current incidents are a matter of concern which are testing the solidity of the China and Africa relationship. Such incidents could have been anticipated.

No matter what, the potential for success remain high and promising, provided that appropriate solutions are explored. Based on our experience in Asia, the negotiation capability of African parties should be raised to the equal level with the Chinese.

Negotiation Capability

Negotiation is a key strategic skill that can determine the outcome of agreements and contracts, especially in the context of negotiated relationships.

Effective negotiation requires fundamental knowledge, skills, practice and wit.

While a successful negotiation leads to win-win results, poor negotiation can have a negative win-lose or lose-lose conclusion.

The strategy of negotiation can have it's source of inspiration in culture. Traditional games and sports can also define a huge part of our thinking process and shape the way we prepare, plan and execute negotiation. For example:

  • Americans and Poker - bluffing is a key role in poker. However, bluff it is only effective when credible.

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  • Russians and Chess - anticipation, positioning and conquest are the key factors for this game

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  • French and Petanque - overtaking the adverse position by shooting power, speed and precision is important here.

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  • Chinese and Go - Emperial perspective and conquest by taking territories inspire this game

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  • African Countries and Mancala, Oware, Bao, Adji (Throughout Africa) - count and capture

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In other words, countries have their own way to develop strategic thinking mostly based on popular traditional games. Africans, however, are not conditioned to apply the strategic mindset of the board game when doing business and negotiations.

This mindset is mostly used for recreational activities. In addition, African traditions are based on music and dance rituals for religious and social purposes. Therefore, when it comes to a negotiation, China and Africa are in an asymmetrical relationship. Africa maybe at a disadvantage, because international negotiation is not a game for the faint of heart.

To raise the African negotiation capability in order to defend their interest while dealing with more experienced partners, they have to learn from cross cultural diversity applied to strategic thinking and negotiation. This process can start with Integrating the philosophy of the board game in the education system in early childhood. In order to prepare for future African leaders.


Asiafrica Foundation praises itself to be in the position to share the insight and expertise of its founders and experts, to assist the African and Chinese partners in addressing the challenges their Unlikely Union are facing.

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