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South-South Cooperation: A New Model of Mutual Partnership between China and Africa
Owusu-Ampaw Maxwell Ako

Post-graduate student, Assistant, the department of Theory and History of International Relations; Peoples' Friendship University of Russia

117198, Russia, Moskva oblast', g. Moscow, ul. Miklukkho Maklaya, 10/2





For decades, China and Africa have been united by cooperation that touches on several fields. But this cooperation has significantly grown over the past decade to the point where it is considered a form of “abusive exploitation of Africa by China” by some observers. Yet, in reality this partnership can be described as cooperation void of risk of being too wrong, win-win. This article raises the question of existence of Western monopoly in terms cooperation aimed at development and growing multiplicity of cooperation policies in this area. It also considers the practices of China’s “South-South” cooperation with African countries and then compares them to traditional North-South cooperation policies. The China’s authorities are deploying South-South cooperation rhetoric and are positioning themselves as reference for developing countries. China is trying to cultivate a positive image in Africa by mobilizing a wide range of academic, cultural, media, economic, and other instruments contributing to strengthening of its power of attraction and the promotion of its development model on the continent. The article assesses the impact of Chinese cooperation on development dynamics in Africa in terms of challenges and opportunities.

Keywords: South-South cooperation, win-win, seduction, coercion, Soft power, cooperation, Africa, China, North-South cooperation, Peaceful Coexistence



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Although China's interest in Africa is not recent, China's presence on the continent has increased considerably since the 2000s, particularly as a result of the internationalization of its companies. This has been accompanied by the development of genuine African policies, on the other hand, including the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (2000).

In light of this, many studies have attempted to examine all the concrete manifestations of this growing Chinese presence in Africa. And to do this, these studies often mobilize the concept of soft power formalized by the American political scientist Joseph Nye, according to whom “soft power" consists of obtaining from others what one wants through acceptance - of one's culture, values and foreign policies - rather than coercion. [1]

South-South relations today refer to a multitude of political, economic, technical, social and cultural relations between developing countries, whereas they were ideological before the end of the cold war. These relations are intensifying and are also being progressively institutionalized through multilateral cooperation mechanisms, particularly within the framework of the United Nations.

It must be noted that, China-Africa cooperation benefits Africa enormously. Africa is lagging behind in infrastructure. This, to a large extent, explains its underdevelopment. It is stated that Africa's infrastructure needs are estimated at US $ 93 billion per year. At present, however, Africa can only raise $ 45 billion a year. The deficit to be filled is $ 48 billion.

For over ten years now, Africa has been reducing this deficit with the basic infrastructure acquired through cooperation with China. Kilometers of roads are being built, airports of international standing emerge from nowhere, hospitals are born, and schools are erected in several agglomerations.

China’s demand for raw materials improves the export earnings of African countries, which are China’s major suppliers. China-African relations are helping to reintroduce Africa into the international flows of formal trade, which she has been side-lined for decades. Chinese investments in agriculture favor the development of Africa’s export monocultures.

On the other hand, thanks to Africa, China is able to meet its growing energy needs. China currently buys more than a third of African oil. Chinese industries are sourcing raw materials from Africa, such as Ghanaian bauxite, South African coal, Gabonese iron ore, Equatorial Guinean timber, Zambian copper, and so on.

Chinese industries also need new markets for their products; and Africa is a huge market capable of responding to this concern.

Soft Power: definition, origin and function in International Cooperation

The theoretical framework of this article is going to be based on the notion of soft power, as conceptualized in the early 1990s by the American political scientist Joseph Nye [2]. Soft power is more precisely an answer to the British historian Paul Kennedy who, in 1987, announced the inevitability of the American decline in his book, The Birth and Decline of the Great Powers. For J. Nye, the thesis of P. Kennedy is wrong.

Conceptually speaking, the power of the United States must be interpreted in the light of soft power rather than the more classic hard power. In other words, the measurement of America’s power cannot be limited to notarial accounting of its material attributes (production indices, number of nuclear warheads, etc.) but must also take into account more intangible attributes such as the attractiveness of its values, its culture, its ideology or its institutions. While Nye concedes that Washington no longer has the material and symbolic resources to secure slavish execution of its orders from others, he insists that the United States has the power to make other nations act in a sense deemed desirable by them. In different terms, Susan Strange, one of the founders of the International Political Economy, had also developed a similar argument [3]. In his view, the weakening of the “relational power” of the United States (their power to coerce a partner) should not overshadow the strengthening of their “structural power”, that is, their ability to organize more decisive rules of economics, politics, etc.

J. Nye identifies three main sources for what he describes as soft power, namely the ability to “shape the preferences of others”: culture, because of the attractiveness it generates; foreign policy, by virtue of the legitimacy it confers; and political values, both internally and externally [4]. The first two of them are, in principle, an attraction factor that Beijing can mobilize in its global relations, particularly with regard to Africa. By distinguishing the concepts of soft power, as a power dependent on emulation and persuasion, than hard power, a material power of coercion essentially economic and military. J. Nye demonstrates that a country can only be powerful on the international scene by operating a skilful combination of hard power (coercion / incentive) and soft power (seduction / co-optation), the outcome is a power termed as “intelligent”, the smart power. [5]

While this approach makes power more of a tool for foreign policy than an end in itself, and tends to challenge the conventional view of leadership, it does not, however, fully address the distinction between global power and influence. Although power is inherently influential, it does not coincide with the latter because of the gap between image and perception. This observation is revived under the effect of media immediacy and the growing vigilance of public opinion.

In these terms, if Chinese power can inspire fear or prudence, it can only marginally generate additional influence. The establishment of a community of views or interests around a positive image of cooperation thus offers China a way to try to circumvent or overcome the difficulties posed to the classic exercise of power in the world or around a negative image of hegemony, linked in particular to its military modernization effort by certain exacerbated constraints, be it national or international public opinions or the need for internal legitimation and external increased influence.

China’s Soft Power Style: An Alternative to the Traditional North-South Cooperation Approach

Some have argued that the Chinese presence on the African continent dates back to the fifteenth century with the expeditions of Admiral Zheng. However, the events that have historically marked the anchoring of China in Africa remain the Bandoeng Conference in (1955). The Maoist policy towards Africa was also significant in solidifying the relationship between China and Africa. Maoist’s policy towards Africa was essentially ideological: it aim was to export the “model” of Chinese development and to promote Third Worldism against the US and Soviet blocs. The Five Principles of “Peaceful Coexistence”[6] then Introduced by the Minister of Foreign Affairs are still today the normative bases of China's relations with developing countries: (1) to support the peoples in their struggle against imperialism and (neo) -colonialism in order to obtain and preserve their independence; (2) encourage governments to pursue policies of peace, neutrality and non-alignment; (3) support peoples' aspirations for unity and solidarity; (4) promote the peaceful settlement of disputes; (5) respect national sovereignty and reject any outside interference.

This third-world cooperative philosophy implies more concretely for China the respect of eight principles in the matter of international aid, ie. commit “to provide foreign aid, respecting the principles of equality and mutual benefits, never to impose any condition neither not to claim any privileges, to best reduce the burden of the beneficiary countries, to help the beneficiary countries to become progressively independent and autonomous, to develop aid projects requiring low investments and followed by immediate results, to provide equipment and equipment of the highest quality that it produces itself, to transmit fully its knowledge to the staff of the country receiving its technical assistance, and finally to offer local experts equal treatment with their Chinese counterparts”.[7]

The year 1989 is another milestone in the history of China-African relations. In a break with the West on the question of human rights and condemned acts on the international scene, the Chinese Government reassessed at the time the importance of African continent whose response to Tiananmen's repression was rather veiled, if not admiring. Ideologically, China post-Cold War endorses pragmatically a suit of new economic partner, interested in Africa primarily as a sink of primary resources and potential markets for its products manufactured. China's commitment to the African continent intensified at the dawn of the 21st century in response to four major concerns: access to natural resources, energy, mining and agriculture needed to continue its growth; the political and economic support of African countries in regional forums such as the African Union (AU) and international ones such as the World Trade Organization or the United Nations Commission on Human Rights; the race for diplomatic recognition with Taiwan still effective in Burkina Faso, Sao Tome and Principe and Swaziland; lastly, the outlets for its manufactured exports by focusing on the economic development prospects of African countries.

Faced with the revivification of Chinese threat theories at the beginning of the twenty-first century, China has historically adopted a global policy of “peaceful development,” with cooperative discourse and cultural promotion aimed both at appeasing regional fears and at responding to global expectations. With anti-hegemony and Third Worldist South-South cooperation, based on harmony and Confucian ethics, China intended to reassure its partners by adding a benevolent dimension to the multidimensional nature of its foreign policy. In trying to limit the impact of any ambiguous vision on the image of soft power they strive to build on the international scene. Chinese leaders have gradually conferred an increased strategic role in the promotion of culture in official discourse and policy documents [8].

By openly referring to the research of J. Nye, promoting China and its national interests is above all to make it loved, to make known its culture, its art and its millennial traditions. Examples are is the organization of international events such as the Beijing Olympic Games (2008) or the Shanghai World Expo (2010), the worldwide proliferation of Confucius establishments, the promotion of academic exchanges (joint scientific research projects, finance of the construction of laboratories, etc.) and the training of professionals, the establishment of the main Chinese media, the international dissemination of cultural products (film exports, etc.), as well as leaders' activism in the recognition of Chinese properties or sites as UNESCO World Heritage.

Although it was earlier perceived by some as a true national strategy, cultural development as a means of strengthening the nation and advancing China's soft power internationally has only recently become truly such by the Chinese Government [9]: it has officially been on the agenda since the 2007 Party Congress, at which Hu Jintao made soft power the main theme of one of his speeches. While the State Council's Cultural Industries Revitalization Plan of September 2009 put China's cultural industries at the forefront of internal development, giving them a strategic status comparable to that of ten other domestic industries (such as the iron and steel industry, automotive, petrochemical or textile), [10] Premier Wen Jiabao took advantage of the 2010 National People's Congress to politically establish the key role of culture for China in national development and international competitiveness [11]. In October 2010, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China approved the Five-Year Plan 2011-2015, with Chapter 44 promoting the export of cultural products and Chinese media initiatives abroad. Chinese leaders have considered that China's participation in international competition requires facilitating understanding of Chinese culture.

The “Beijing Consensus” Against the “Washington Consensus”

China, with its economic capabilities, presents the fundamental values of non-interference, mutual benefit and unconditionality which underpin its development cooperation as an alternative route to the conditions of traditional donors such as Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Development Assistance Program (DAC). Since the 1990s, DAC members have focused on the protection of human rights and democratic governance as conditions for recipient countries. In contrast, Chinese aid does not formally impose any condition that may affect the national economic policy of recipient countries but, based generally on their demands, intended to align with their urgent needs for public infrastructure and investment.

Chinese aid projects thus focus mainly on the sectors of agriculture, industry, economic infrastructure, public facilities, education or even medical care, with the aim of promoting to improve industrial and agricultural productivity, to build a solid foundation for economic and social development, to improve the education system and health care and, more recently, to control the effects of climate change [12]. By seeking, first and foremost, to meet the primary needs of the countries receiving its aid, China is establishing itself as an indispensable player in the (re) construction of their autonomous and independent development. Chinese cooperation is therefore often perceived as more appropriate and predictable than Western forms of aid.

In terms of “development effectiveness” [13] rather than in terms of “aid effectiveness” [14], Chinese aid projects have a twofold perspective:

helping beneficiary countries to increase their development capacity by combining trade, economic cooperation and investment in the productive sectors, contrary to the priority given to the social sectors by traditional donors; on the other hand, to appear as a responsible actor able to share its experience and effective practices in reducing poverty according to the Millennium Development Goals. This new “model” of development cooperation, with an official emphasis on equality, sovereignty, non-interference and mutual interests, is seen by Joshua Ramo as an alternative to the “consensus of Washington” [15]. Labeled “Beijing consensus”, it is based on a development adapted to local needs and varies from one place to another ("localization") and offers developing countries a path of integration guaranteeing them genuine independence and protecting their way of life and their political choices ("multilateralism") [16]. This is a pragmatic approach that implies for China to provide financing without macroeconomic conditions and promote development before reforms, contrary to the Washington consensus that gives priority to reforms and conditionalities as prerequisites for development [17].

South-South Cooperation

After the end of the Cold War with a first call for a “more just and rational political and economic order” in a more multipolar world,[18] China's global commitment intensified as the years go by. Labeled “South-South”[19] for developing countries, this development cooperation sometimes equated with energy diplomacy [20] actually responds more broadly to four major concerns: (1) access to natural resources energy, mining and agriculture necessary in pursuit of growth; (2) political and economic support in regional and international forums; (3) the race for diplomatic recognition with Taiwan; and (4) the search for new outlets for its manufactured exports by focusing on the prospects of economic development in Africa. In exchange for the satisfaction of its national interests [21], Beijing promises in return to Southern countries a development aid - sometimes accompanied by donations for the construction of prestigious buildings - and an investment without political counterpart, contrary to the practices of traditional donors.

Inscribed at the heart of a wave of South-South convergences, an alternative to the dominant Western system [22], China's development cooperation policy is based on a classic capitalist model of financing infrastructure in exchange for natural resources, but opportunely presented as a “win-win” financial alternative, which can be easily mobilized in the short term, is China's strong point and gateway to developing countries. Chinese cooperation has thus grown sharply with Africa since the early 2000s. As a result, Beijing has become a key trading partner, a major provider of foreign direct investment (FDI) and a major provider of financial lending to a growing number of African countries.

If China's economic opening and development has created new networks in international trade, production and investment, they have also established a “China / Commodities Complex” [23] with Africa. This trend has benefited African exporters of commodities, whose growth was driven by the increase in the volume and price of exported resources. Both oil exporting countries and those specializing in the export of agricultural and mining products have benefited from this situation: sub-Saharan African states such as Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Gabon record a trade surplus with China. In a context of rising commodity prices, their trade with China has globally enabled Africa to benefit from an increase in export revenues and a geographical diversification of their trade: in 2013 for instance, China-African trade account for 13.3% of Africa's total foreign trade.[24]

Above all commercial reasons, the intensification of these South-South exchanges, however, often reveals a variable and relatively asymmetrical geometry. Not only does it not affect all African in a consistent way, but their commercial exports to China also appear to be highly concentrated: the export of oil to china represents more than two-thirds of the value [25]. This high concentration contrasts with the diversity of Chinese exports in Africa, mostly composed of manufactured goods: they account for more than 90% of African imports from China. The high concentration of exports in commodities reinforces the trend with the EU and the United States. [26]

Conclusion: an African perspective

Is China a threat or opportunity for Africa? The answer to this question formulated in binary terms must be nuanced if we favor a multidimensional reading, taking into account the multiplicity of points of view and integrating different levels of analysis. Such a reading must immediately discard any opinion taken and any final opinion. Clearly, China's growing presence in Africa offers to the latter the opportunity to loosen the links of dependence which still binds it closely to the old colonial powers and international financial institutions. In addition to contributing to the widening of the political space, the new links woven between China and Africa reduce pressure from financial burden on African States, which are fiscal room for maneuver as structural adjustments mechanism.

The status of African countries as passive bidders subject to the directives and requirements of international financial institutions and donors have thus shifted to that of active actors in the game, or even referees in the competition at which deliver the great powers. Surely, after suffering more than twenty years of imposed weight loss, the Member States of African countries are recovering new margins of sovereignty and are because of the financial support of China, able to take part in a more self-centered development process and less dependent on external recommendations.

If all of this is potentially profitable for African countries, the opening of this new space of action and decision does not guarantee in no way the beginning of a development that is both profitable and sustainable to the populations. First because, whatever Chinese and African officials profess, the economic report between China and Africa is nothing more than a configuration of North-South. Despite the real economic benefits derived from such a relationship, Africa remains confined to its exclusive role of supplier of raw materials. The possibility for the continent to leave a relationship in which it had been placed by the old colonial powers is therefore still very hypothetical.

Secondly, because the links formed between China and Africa are of an elitist nature, the Peking favoring cooperation are above all from state to state, without any concern as to how the partner uses the funds. However, African states often demonstrate their inability to ensure real redistribution. Monopolized by oligarchies, authoritarian or semi-authoritarian leaders, many of them are characterized precisely by their lack of sensitivity to the demands and needs of their population. Without a modification of the power structures in Africa that could de-clog on the opening of political spaces allowing expression of all national actors and guaranteeing their rights. In fact, it is doubtful that people are a real benefit of the China-African relationship.

Most experts agree that the Chinese model is hardly transposable in Africa and that only the emergence of a space of political inclusion, control and participation will be able to ensure that the revenues generated from this China-African rapprochement are not diverted to other purposes at the expense of the improvement of the living conditions of the whole population.

There are those who argue that even if it could be transposed to Africa, the Chines model, based on the excessive exploitation of raw materials and prioritizing the goals of economic growth over other consideration (political, social or environmental), is hardly viable in the medium and long term. If it intoxicates or exalts leaders and many African intellectuals who consider it as an alternative to the Washington Consensus and agenda development of traditional donors, the Chines model of cooperation is just but an optical illusion.

Despite criticism of the conditions under which certain Chinese projects in African are carried out, particularly in terms of social and environmental conditions, Africa’s relations with China allow for the diversification of Africa’s formerly exclusive partnerships with the former colonial powers.

China and its actors are still in a learning phase in Africa, while changing (sub-) regional balances and competition with other emerging powers. The spread of Chinese norms is, moreover, for the moment conceived as a means of circumventing traditional powers. To be truly an alternative to the Western model, China must accept to assume the role of normative leader capable of spreading its own standards, ideas and values worldwide.

Nye Joseph Soft Power the Means to Success in World Politics, New York, Public Affairs, 2004.
Nye Joseph, Bound to Lead. The Changing Nature of American Power, New York, Basic Book, 1990.
Strange Susan, Protectionism and World Politics, International Organisation vol. 39 1985 pp. 233-259.
Nye Joseph Soft Power the Means to Success in World Politics, op. cit., pp. 5-16.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Peoples Republic of China, Premier Zhou Enlais Tour of Asian and African Countries, Pekin, 17 November 2000.
Jiang Zemin, Build a Wall off Society in an All-Round Way and Create a New Situation in Building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics , Report Delivered at the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Pekin, 8 November 2002.
Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, The Central Committee Decision Concerning the Major Issue of Deeping Cultural System Reforms, Promoting the Great Development and Prosperity of Socialist Culture, Xhinhua News Agency, 18 October 2011.
Hu Jintao, Hold High the Great Banner of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics and Strive for New Victories in Building a Moderately Prosperous Society in all, Report on the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Prkin 15 October 2007 ; Zhou Jianxiong, Boosting Culture, Beijing Review Vol. 54 No. 43, 27 October 2011, pp. 2-10.
Premier: China to Continue Cultural System Reform, China Daily, 5 March 2010.
Information Office of the State Council of the Peoples Republic of China, Chinas Foreign Aid, 21 April 2011.
OCDE, Appropriation, harmonisation ,alignment of results and responsibilities, Paris Declaration on the effectiveness of Aid in Development, 28 February-2March 2008.
Williamson John, What Washington DC Mean by Policy Reform, Washington, Institute for International Economics, 1990, pp. 7-39.
Ramo Joshua, The Beijin Consensus, London, The Foreign Policy Center, 2004 pp. 1-8.
Davies Penny, China and the End of Poverty in Africa-Towards Mutual Benefit? , Sundbyburg, Diakonia/Eurodad, 2007.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Peoples Republic of China, Chinas Views on the development of Multipolarization, Pekin, 18 August 2003.
Ministry Of Foreign Affairs of the Peoples Republic of China, Chinas Stand on South-South Cooperation, Pekin, 18 August 2018.
Information Office of the State Council of the Peoples Republic of China, Chinas Energy Conditions and Policies, white Paper, Pekin 26 December 2007.
Ibid pp. 236-240.
Industrial Policies in a Changing World: Shifting up a Gear, Prospective on Global Development 2013, Paris, OECD, 2013 pp 43-44.
Ibid OECD Prospective on Global Development, pp. 49.
MOFCOM, Spokesman of the Ministry of Commerce, Shen Danyang gives a joint Interview to media on Several Hot Issues Concerning Economy and Trade, 13 May, 2013.
Shinn David and Eisenman Joshua, China and African: A Century of Engagement, Insight Monthly January, 2013 p. 17.
CNUCED, Economic Development in Africa, Report 2010, South-South Cooperation: Africa and the New Forms of Development Partnership, United Nations 2010 p. 34.
Kennedy Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, New York, Random House, 1987.