China has huge opportunities and also challenges in its foreign and security policy in Africa. In peace-keeping, anti-terrorism, fighting against illegal arms transfer and control of infectious diseases, China can exert a greater role in cooperating with African governments as well as developed countries, said Linda Jakobson, senior researcher at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) at a recent seminar on future directions of Chinese foreign and security policy in Stockholm.
Jakobson said that China's presence in Africa has expanded dramatically over the last decade whether one examines aid and investment figures or the political and military engagement between China and Africa. But figures alone do not reflect the whole situation, especially as China's engagement with Africa is not new but dates back more than 50 years.
China's Premier and President have visited Africa a total of 6 times since assuming their posts in 2003. In 2006 the China-Africa Summit was held in Beijing, resulting in a long list of pledges from China to make substantial funds to Africa's development. Ten years ago, China didn't sell any arms to Africa, but over the past 10 years according to SIPRI data, China sold a total of 800 million dollars worth of arms to Africa. At the same time, China also has had a growing role in peace-keeping efforts in Africa.
China presently has 11 peace-keeping operations worldwide and 6 of them are in Africa. A Chinese officer was 18 months ago for the first time appointed by the UN Secretary General as head of the UN peace-keeping forces in Africa in western Sahara.
Jakobson pointed out that in the west, China's diplomatic engagement in Africa tends to be looked upon as solely driven by the country's need for resources. Oil is the leading commodity that China imports from Africa. But in reality China's African policies encompass strategic goals that are much more than just securing oil and new export markets. China's policy in Africa is part of China's overall strategy to a constructive and responsible major power.
While China benefits from its relations with Africa because of economic opportunities, it also benefits from Africa's diplomatic support. For example, most African countries support the one China policy. Today only four countries in Africa maintain relations with Taiwan.
From Beijing's point of view Africa is vital not only for China's economic development, but also an important part of shaping China's influence as a global power. Thus Chinese policymakers continuously adjust their policy to the changing international environment and to the changing needs of the country.
Jakobson said a mixed picture emerges when assessing the challenges and opportunities of Chinese policy in Africa. On the one hand, China can exert a greater role in peace-keeping in Sudan, in antiterrorism, illegal arms transfers and control of infectious diseases. China can become more engaged and even take the lead in numerous issues in cooperation with African governments and also with other major global powers.
On the other hand, when turning to challenges, China's image continues to be tarnished internationally because of some policies in Africa. In particular, Beijing's continued support for the Sudanese government and arm sales to Khartoum face ongoing criticism by human rights groups and several governments.
Moreover, Chinese intentions are questioned each time Chinese officials refer to the policy of non-interference to defend China's attitude towards issues such as labor standards, environmental standard and code of conduct in Africa.
"It's fair to say that Chinese policy leaders are aware of these enormous challenges, for example balancing the interests of the numerous Chinese actors in Africa."
Chinese researchers and low level officials often discuss the challenges with foreigners . There is a huge lack of expertise in dealing with modern day issues in Africa.
Another subject is the gradual erosion of Chinese policy of non-intervention. Many analysts in China acknowledge that this policy is much more difficult to adhere to as China assumes international responsibility. China doesn't like to be viewed as turning a blind eye in front of international crisis.
In fact, if one assesses China's decision in recent months to participate in the international mission to curb piracy off Somalia's coast, one can detect an adjustment of policies.
The Chinese navy's decision to send vessels to take part in an international mission was a historical first. Setting off from Hainan island, this was the longest journey by the Chinese modern navy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, initially the Chinese navy maintained little communication with other navies, presumably to attain certain degree of comfort , but step by step Chinese interaction with the other navies increased and by the end of the three months, the Chinese navy made several visits to those of the US and Europe. Also the Chinese navy only escorted Chinese merchant vessels in the beginning but the Chinese merchant vessels didn't want to waste time of waiting. So now negotiations are under way for the Chinese navy to stay in certain area and escort any vessels coming by, said Jakobson.
Jakobson said the Chinese navy commander and officers have said that it was an important opportunity to test their facilities, the vessel functions as well as how to deal with military diplomacy at sea, and they still have a lot to learn from other navies.
In sum, there are enormous opportunities for China to strengthen its role globally and assure the world of its intention to being constructive.
But there are also enormous challenges because of the contradiction that exists between China's traditional adherence to non-intervention policy and China's desire to be an international major power.
By Xuefei Chen People's Daily Online, Stockholm.