Tuesday, November 04, 2008

The EU, Africa and China: Opportunities and challenges of a trilateral cooperation

The EDC2020 project coordinated by EADI aims to inform the public and policy-makers about future scenarios and their likely effects on European Development Cooperation to 2020. The project wants to encourage close collaboration between researchers and policy-making communities.

Dealing with "The EU, Africa and China: opportunities and challenges of trilateral cooperation" a Briefing Session for Parliamentarians and Policy Makers recently took place on 27 October 2008 in Brussels. The session was co-organized with Society for International Development Europe (SID Europe).

In light of a recently published communication of the European Commission entitled "The EU, Africa and China: Towards trilateral dialogue and cooperation" (pdf) a high-ranking panel chaired by Sven Grimm (DIE) including Xuewu Gu (Ruhr-University Bochum), Helmut Reisen (OECD Development Centre), Uwe Wissenbach (EU Commission), Rene van der Linden (Dutch Senate) discussed the opportunities and challenges for this ambitious plan.

Talking about the general idea of the EDC2020 project, Jos van Gennip (SID Europe) stressed in his opening speech the need for intense North-South dialogue between policy makers, researchers and politicians. Tha the African panel speaker, Olusanya Ajakaiye (African Economic Research Consortium), could not participate due to visa problems showed the difficulties facing us.

Sven Grimm (DIE) outlined the programme of the briefing, beginning with a close look into the EC Communication, as starting point for a discussion of the diverse interests and positions among the EU, Africa and China.

Uwe Wissenbach (European Commission) working on the African relations with non-European countries within DG DEV, was closely involved in the drafting process of the communication. He felt that different perceptions between the main actors and an emotional discussion within the European media about China's role in Africa had a negative impact on EU-China Relations. The communication attempts to build common ground for a close dialogue and practical cooperation with China in Africa.

Africa needs to realize that there is already a long relationship between the EU and China. A perspective which sees Chinese engagement only as an opportunity to increase negotiation leverage in the EU-Africa dialogue can be contra-productive. Nonetheless the EU needs to accept that China's engagement leads to a less exclusive relationship between the EU and Africa. Africa is more important for global governance and new actors are in Africa for resources, geopolitical interests and diplomatic concerns. Wissenbach stressed that the EU is not only cooperating with Africa because of charity but also for the same reasons.

The EC communication identifies key areas of cooperation including security, infrastructure and agriculture. Wissenbach sees it as a pragmatic approach that looks at the opportunities of cooperation, which is why critical issues discussed within the continuing EU-China dialogue are not included. Consultation on the paper took place since 2005 with China and with African representatives since 2007. The communication should be seen as a starting point for further dialogue with China and Africa.

Xuewu Gu, from the Institute of East Asian Politics at the Ruhr-University Bochum looked on the issue from China's perspective. He saw several challenges for a successful partnership with China. He sees China's actions in Africa as touch-stone for larger geopolitical ambitions. China's interests in closer cooperation with the EU are based on a wish to appease Europe and to improve China's international reputation - while the EU intends to integrate and direct China into a favourable direction.

A future cooperation needs to deal with the different philosophies on both sides. According to Gu, the EU believes it knows what is best for Africa and puts itself into a role of a protector of 'African interests'. China rejects the idea that it can teach new values, but wants to make pure business. This does lead to different crisis management approaches where Europe is ready to sanction African countries but China will not go beyond negotiation.

In practical terms, China focuses on infrastructure and the EU on institution building, good governance and a strong civil society. Gu concludes that due to these diversities a trilateral dialogue will become very difficult.

Helmut Reisen, Research Director of the OECD Development Centre looked at the economic aspects of Chinese cooperation in Africa, which he sees as mainly positive. As negative aspects, he named the resource trap African countries are put in and the insistence by China to implement its projects with Chinese workers. Furthermore, China faces strong criticism regarding its lending and debt policy in Africa.

Positive aspects are the new leverage for Africa in negotiation processes and the highly effective and efficient implementation of Chinese infrastructural projects. Reisen points out that Western protectionism regarding natural resources forced China to increase the supply side by investing in Africa. Finally, China has large financial resources to deploy and looks at Africa as a test ground for Chinese companies on their way to going global.

Europeans bring highly advanced technologies to Africa which will often lack sustenance in the long-term. On the other hand, China has a comparative advantage since it offers intermediary technologies which can easily be maintained. Reisen rejects the complaint that the Chinese only use Chinese labour, which is highly effective, fast and efficient. In fact, African governments often do not want to use African labor but prefer the fast results of the imported staff.

Looking at the EC communication, Reisen stressed the opportunity to engage more with Africa and China and to make more use of African institutions, such as the African Development Bank, since China is rather skeptical of Western dominated institutions like the World Bank and IMF.

Rene van der Linden spoke from the perspective of a EU Member State. He feared that public support for EU aid is under pressure, mainly because of doubts about its effectiveness. In his opinion, the EU-Africa Strategic Partnership as well as the EC Communication are defensive reactions of the EU to these circumstances. Van der Linden proposed that the communication should include other areas of cooperation, most importantly health and education.

The expert panel was followed by a lively discussion. Among other issues, this focused on the 'real' European interests in a dialogue with China on Africa. Wissenbach denied the standpoint that the EU strives to contain Chinese policy in Africa. He argued that China plays an important role on the continent which could be more effective with closer cooperation with European partners. China tends to see everything in terms of 'us and them' and that everybody is 'ganging up' against it and consequently looks for evidence for it.

Nonetheless, Wissenbach underlined that the EU has nothing to fear. Taking the example of Chinese investments, he pointed out that European companies are strong enough to choose other and more attractive regions for investment while Chinese companies need to go to Africa. The main aim of the EU is to take out the negative dynamics within the trilateral relations which is in the interest of all actors.

by Martin Behrens

Nadarajah Shanmugaratnam (NORAGRIC) comments on the discussion:

More videos of the conference can be found here

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See also the Euforic newsfeed on EU-Africa relations.