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Putting Africa first

African countries need to come together to get the best possible deal out of the relationship with China. And China has appeared willing to engage with multilateral institutions, like the African Union. Cobus van Staden sets out three possible areas for African cooperation and the dynamics in each that make it harder than it looks.

China’s relationship with Africa is changing the face of the continent. Thanks to Chinese financing, Africa is rapidly gaining infrastructure. China is also establishing new modes of engagement for other emerging donors, presenting an alternative to European aid. However, the notion that China dictates the terms of this China-Africa relationship still nags and allows narratives such as “China’s scramble for Africa” to develop. So how can Africa place itself first in Africa-China relations?

Experts have argued that the key lies in developing a comprehensive and collective strategy for negotiations with China. To do so requires selecting shared issues for collective bargaining in shared forums. These agendas should also inform bilateral negotiations. While China’s engagement with bodies like the AU shows that it is willing to move beyond bilateral negotiations, identifying these issues is easier said than done. Frequently the challenges are due to internal African factors. Below, I suggest three possible rallying points. Each presents an opportunity for undertaking collective bargaining and compelling reasons to do so. Each also reveals the complex problems that make it difficult for Africa to present a united front to foreign investors like China.

Regional infrastructure
One of the more promising and successful examples of collective bargaining with China is taking place around the implementation of cross-border infrastructure. Several of the massive rail projects being built with Chinese financing and by Chinese companies run across national borders and demand collective negotiations and governance.

One of the many poisoned legacies of European colonialism is infrastructure planned according to colonial expediency, not in order to create efficient regional networks. China is helping plug these gaps through involvement in cross-border mega projects. In East Africa, for example, a Chinese company, with Chinese financing, is building the East African Standard Gauge Railway, which will link the Kenyan cities of Mombasa and Nairobi, and will eventually extend to Kampala in Uganda, Juba in South Sudan and Kigali in Rwanda. The rail system is part of an integrated development plan for East Africa that will include expanded airports, highways and port facilities along the coast.

This cooperation presents massive opportunities. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta estimates that the Nairobi-Mombasa rail link alone will raise Kenya’s GDP by 1.5%. However, this depends on all the participating countries not only submitting to shared governance, but also developing efficient domestic management. Any breakdown of national governance has the potential to delay the entire project. The Ugandan section of the Standard Gauge Railway is a case in point. Here, a botched tender process has devolved into lengthy trials and accusations of corruption. The dysfunction in Uganda has also led to increased costs. The Ugandan case shows how local complications can delay regional and continental dreams.

Increasing transparency
The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) binds signatory nations to the full disclosure of any payments made to governments by companies extracting natural gas, oil or minerals.

The initiative is aimed at improving the management of natural resources, and cutting down on corruption. Of the 48 countries in the EITI process, 32 are seen as fully compliant. Of these 18 are in Africa, with another 5 listed as partially compliant. In fact, one can say that Africa is leading the world in EITI compliance. EITI-compliant African countries could act as a bargaining block, making the full disclosure of payments a standard part of doing business in their territories.

A major challenge for this collective bargaining would be to get China to join EITI, or an alternative community – which is admittedly a long shot. Another fundamental problem is getting African signatories to enforce these transparency rules. Many African bureaucracies lack the staff capacity to sufficiently keep track of the extractive industries in their countries and to deal with the tax avoidance strategies of multinational corporations. The effect is more than $50 billion of illicit financial flows out of African economies each year (see pages 34-36). The scale of this flow of capital, in essence, makes Africa a global creditor, rather than a global debtor.

In addition, signatory countries are also sometimes less than willing to fully disclose their own transactions. For example, a joint report from three NGOs in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Carter Center has shown that six months after signing on to the EITI, the DRC government hasn’t published the full set of contracts for any of the 17 extractive projects the NGOs reviewed. The researchers found that even when contracts were nominally available, access is difficult due to expensive fees and poor organisation.

For all the good a collective insistence on transparency would do Africa, serious failures at a national level tend to make the implementation of regional and continental commitments to transparency a challenge. Hence China’s tendency to foreground bilateral relations over relations with regional blocs.

Protecting wildlife
The rapid escalation of wildlife poaching (primarily rhinos and elephants, but also lions, pangolins and abalone) and the flow of illegal wildlife products to China have raised alarm in Africa. The spike in poaching has wider impacts than animal welfare. It threatens one of Africa’s most dependable forms of revenue: tourism. For example, one in twelve South African jobs is supported by tourism, according to the National Department of Tourism, and wildlife remains a mainstay of the sector in South Africa.

African countries can make a legitimate case that ending the poaching epidemic would have measurable positive economic and security impacts. While China is often unfairly characterised as the only destination for illegal wildlife products (these products also flow to Vietnam, the Middle East and the United States), it is certainly a major one. A crackdown by the Chinese government would create direct pressure on the demand for ivory.

The reality is that the Chinese government doesn’t seem particularly interested in cracking down on consumers of illegal wildlife products. While these products are officially illegal, Chinese elites remain eager consumers.

However, Chinese demand can cause serious diplomatic embarrassment. For example, last year a report by the Environmental Investigation Agency alleged that Chinese officials travelling in President Xi Jinping’s official entourage bought ivory in Tanzania. In addition, the report said that the ivory had travelled back to China in the diplomatic bag. Chinese officials denied the allegations.

In certain respects, it is surprising that the Xi administration hasn’t launched a greater crackdown on illegal ivory. Early in 2014, the Chinese government crushed 6 tons of ivory with great fanfare; China has also donated money to conservation efforts in Africa. So the government hasn’t been averse to using conservation as a form of public diplomacy.

Such a crackdown would also fit into Xi’s wider campaign against corruption among China’s officials – a campaign that has had an impact everywhere, from the People’s Liberation Army to the casinos of Macau. On the surface, an ivory crackdown would seem to serve anti-corruption efforts at home while buying goodwill in Africa – win-win.

However, there are complications. Firstly, the exact nature of and reasons for the anti-corruption campaign remain unclear.

Secondly, and more importantly, the illegal wildlife trade isn’t drawing greater official attention from China because African leaders have not put it on their own agendas at either national or regional level. In South Africa, 1,215 rhinos were poached in 2014, up 21% from the year before. Conservation activists point out that the gaps in wildlife governance and policing that enable some of the poaching have not been significantly tightened since the upsurge of poaching started in 2008.

In some African countries, this lack of political will is no accident. A pattern of environmental degradation, linked to graft from local officials, has been identified in countries as disparate as Mozambique and Cameroon. It is also notable that when news of the Tanzanian ivory scandal broke, Tanzanian officials were also implicated. The Tanzanian government, like its Chinese counterpart, strenuously denies the allegations contained in the report.

This pattern makes one less optimistic about the possibility that African leaders will collectively bargain with China to make wildlife protection a centrepiece of Africa-China relations. This is a pity because the issue offers excellent opportunities for regional cooperation in Africa, which could be expanded to manage newly discovered oil and natural gas reserves effectively. That said, there are at least flickers of cross-border cooperation on poaching between South Africa and Mozambique. However, it is still far from a comprehensive united front that could have steered discussions in an arena like the upcoming Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Leaders’ Summit in 2015.    

As China’s engagement with Africa grows beyond country-to-country relations, it is creating regional opportunities and challenges. Africa will only be able to navigate these successfully collectively. If Africa doesn’t take the opportunity and instead engages with China on a country-by-country basis, the continent dooms itself to replaying “scramble for Africa” narratives deep into the 21st century.

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Written by Cobus Staden

Cobus van Staden is a lecturer in Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. He specializes in the overlap of media and diplomacy. He is also the co-founder of the China-Africa Project, the largest online English-language forum for the discussion of China-Africa relations.

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