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Africa-China relations: Symmetry, Soft Power and South Africa

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Africa-China relations:
Symmetry and Soft Power
Adams Bodomo
University of Hong Kong
abbodomo@hku.hk
Talk at African Studies Institute, Zhejiang
Normal University, Jinhua, May 14, 2009
Abstract
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Africa-China relations have not reached an apogee
but they have gathered steam.
Two important issues within this steam are whether
the relationship between the two parts of the world
is symmetrical or asymmetrical and the exact role of
soft power in this constellation.
This paper takes positions in the arguments and
proposes that prominent economies on the African
continent such as South Africa have an important
role to play in ensuring a symmetrical relationship in
which Africa can also take part in a symmetrical
cultural diplomacy with China, such as in the setting
up of Mandela Institutes in China.
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Content
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1. Introduction
2. A Golden Era of Africa-China relations
3. Is the Relationship Asymmetrical?
4. Soft power
5. The Role of South Africa and others
6. Conclusion
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1. Introduction
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When exactly did Africa-China relations begin?
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The travels of Admiral Zhang He of Yunnan in the Ming
dynasty (in the 1400s) to Africa
The Bandung conference of 1955
Whatever…
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Africa-China relations have suddenly gathered steam within
the last 10 years
High-level travels by Chinese leaders to African capitals
and high level travels by African leaders to Beijing
Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC)
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Questions
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Why is it that this relationship has all of a sudden
gathered momentum? What are the major issues
involved in this momentum?
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Who is driving the relationship? Are there equal
benefits or is the relationship skewed in an
asymmetrical fashion to the benefit of one partner
over the other?
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If there is this tendency how can one redress this?
What is the role of soft power or cultural diplomacy
as a solution to this?
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2. A Golden Era of Africa-China
relations
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Three main facts indicate that Africa-China relations have begun
a golden era.
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1. Very high level political visits and meeting at ministerial and
even Head of State level involving the Chinese and African
governments
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2. Trade has increased to such an extent that China is now the
third largest trading partner to Africa
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3. Rapid establishment of African and
Chinese migrant communities on both
continents (Large ,2008; Bertoncello and Bredeloup, 2007;
Bodomo, 2007a, 2007b & 2008; Li, 2007)
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3. Is the Relationship Asymmetrical?
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Africa-China relations are asymmetrical in
favour of China – esp from Western sources
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Asymmetrical nomenclature
Trade, economic and
investment asymmetry
Political asymmetry?
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Asymmetrical nomenclature
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CNKI (29th October 2008):
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ISI (30th October):
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Africa-China ("feizhongguanxi"): No paper
China-Africa ("zhongfeiguanxi"): 336 papers (from 19792008)
Africa-China: No paper
China-Africa: One paper (Large 2008)
SCOPUS (30th October):
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Africa-China: One paper (Anonymous, 1976)
China-Africa: Four papers (George 1965, King 2007, Naidu
2007 and Large 2007)
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Trade, economic and investment
asymmetry
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China (along with India for that matter)
invests more in Africa than Africa invests in
China (Broadman, 2007)
Broadman cautions: “It is imperative that both
sides of this promising South-South
economic relations address asymmetries and
obstacles to its continuous expansion through
reforms.”
I argue that this purported asymmetry is
rather exaggerated.
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Political asymmetry?
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It is sometimes argued that because China is a
huge country with a large population of more than
1.3 billion, its relations with an Africa fragmented into
50 plus nations is necessarily and logically
asymmetrical?
Not necessarily…
Despite having 53 independent countries, African
countries often vote mostly en bloc on topical
international issues.
E.g. China got the Beijing Olympics awarded it
because of an “en bloc” vote by Africa during the
IOC decision-making process.
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Political asymmetry?
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Counter-argument
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Africa-China relations are asymmetrical in favour
of Africa on the political front because of Africa’s
massive voting clout at the UN and other
international bodies like the IOC and the WTO
In terms of geopolitics Africa wields some
considerable political power that China even
benefits from, just as Africa benefits from
China’s economic aid and investments in
Africa
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4. Soft Power
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As Dr Liu Haifang of the Chinese Academy of Social
Science has succinctly captured in an excellent
article (Liu 2008), soft power is the term that
Chinese scholars tend to prefer to use as a
designation for cultural diplomacy which is defined
as “...that aspect of diplomacy that involves a
government’s efforts to transmit its national culture
to foreign publics with the goal of bringing about an
understanding of national ideals and institutions as
part of a larger attempt to build support for political
and economic goals.” (Maack 2001: 3, quoted in Liu
2008)
Western commentators prefer to use the term
“charm offensive” (Kurlantzick 2007)
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Confucius Institutes
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A prominent feature of China’s cultural diplomacy or soft power
More than 20 such institutes out of 300 worldwide have been
opened or will soon be opened throughout Africa which teach
Chinese language and culture.
This focus helps Africa-China relations to move away from the
skewed economic focus
But there is a danger of creating an asymmetry if Africa does
nothing in return
Where is Africa’s diplomatic policy towards China?
What role can South Africa as Africa’s
most advanced economy play in the search for
a symmetry in Africa-China relations?
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5. The Role of South Africa
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South Africa is already playing a leading role
in advancing Africa-China relations only after
10 years of diplomatic relations with Beijing,
since January 1998.
A little known fact: South African firms have
been more successful in penetrating the
Chinese markets than Chinese firms in
establishing themselves on the South African
market.
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The following report by the China Business Frontier
(April 2008) newsletter testifies to this:
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“What followed (since the start of diplomatic
relations in January 1998) was an initial rush of
Chinese investment into the country…However, a
general lack of local market knowledge,
inexperienced management and a vastly different
business culture all contributed to failure of these
companies.”
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The paper continues:
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“In contrast, South African corporations have been
extremely successful in penetrating the often
challenging China market. A handful of firms have
been “industry shapers” in the Chinese economy –
after entering the market in 1994, SAB Miller
became the largest brewer by volume in China last
year, Naspers is a leading media player…: and
Sasol could soon become the single largest investor
in China if it goes ahead with two coal-to-liquid gas
projects in China.”
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Mandela Institutes
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African countries should aim at setting up African Cultural Institutions in
China
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For South Africa, I propose that the most apt designation should be the
Mandela Institute:
 Teaching South African languages and cultures and spreading Mandela’s
policy of rapproachment between races and all peoples of the world
пЃ± African governments can collaborate with Chinese government and
Chinese Universities to promote African Studies by setting up MoUs.
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The new University of Hong Kong African Studies Programme
(www.hku.hk/AfricanStudies) and similar programmes in mainland China
have an important role to play given the right intergovernmental support.
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6. Conclusion
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Two important notions within contemporary Africa-China relations:
пЃ± symmetry and soft power
I have argued that the notion that Africa-China relations are asymmetrical in
favour of China is a largely exaggerated notion
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Instead, I have shown that the relationship is thus largely symbiotic and
mutually beneficial:
пЃ± Africa has shown enough political muscle to counterbalance international
decisions in favour of China
пЃ± China is helping Africa through aid and favourable investments
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Soft power or cultural diplomacy offers a promising path to an equilibrium
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South Africa has an important role to play in ensuring a symmetrical
relationship.
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References
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Anonymous. 1976. East Africa - Afro-Chinese brotherhood. Intereconomics 11 (1), pp. 5.
Bertoncello, Brigitte and Sylvie Bredeloup. 2007. “The emergence of new African “trading posts” in Hong
Kong and Guangzhou,” China Perspectives, No.1 , pp 94 – 105.
Bodomo, A. B. 2008. Africa-China relations in an era of globalization: the role of African trading
communities in China. Invited Paper, Symposium on China-Africa Cooperation in the Context of
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diplomacy with Africa. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs No 3, pp 9 – 43
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