Asking whether China is good or bad for the continent is not only beside the point, it distracts us from more pressing and relevant questions, such as what do African states want to gain from these new partnerships, and what are they doing to achieve this?
China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, surpassing the United States and its traditional European partners. Commercial ties between the two regions exploded since 2000, leaping from $10bn (£6.3bn) to over $100bn in the last decade.
The towering new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa was a largely welcomed $200m gift from Beijing and a clear testimony of China’s intention, and ability, to engage with individual states as well as an entire continent, presenting it with new opportunities and challenges.
While some argue that China is a 21st Century partner for development and a unique catalyst for growth, critics fear that China is a new colonial power, plundering Africa’s natural resources and exacerbating existing patterns of corruption and inequality.
Advocates claim that China’s rise has benefited the continent by injecting unprecedented investment, dynamism, and confidence into local markets, generating important gains for local economies. Critics, in contrast, accuse China of violating local laws, depleting the continent’s resources, and taking advantage of corrupt leaders.
Despite mounting criticism and the Western media’s largely negative portrayal of events, reality on the ground reveals that, by and large, both African governments and people welcome investment and new partnerships with the Asian giant.
“If you want concrete things you go to China. If you want to engage in endless discussion and discourse you go to the normal traditional donors,” a senior manager from United Nations Economic Commission for Africa put it bluntly.
However, these partnerships are not without problems and are far from the shining examples of south-south cooperation Chinese leaders and media often like to portray.
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