China using knowledge to consolidate its influence in Africa

Saturday September 12 2015

China's President Xi Jinping (left) and his wife Peng Liyuan arrive at Auckland International Airport on November 19, 2014. FILE PHOTO | AFP

China's President Xi Jinping (left) and his wife Peng Liyuan arrive at Auckland International Airport on November 19, 2014. FILE PHOTO | AFP  

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With its 1.3 billion people, the world’s second most powerful economy, a nuclear stock, a seat in the United Nations Security Council and drawing on the ethos of one of the world’s oldest civilisations, China is a superpower.

But faced with growing accusations of extracting and siphoning African resources to fuel its rise, China is consciously shunning the supply-side economic models in redefining its relations with the continent.

Beijing’s scholars and foreign policy mandarins are experimenting on the “power/knowledge” model to win the hearts and minds of African thinkers and wielders of power in governments and regional groupings.

To be sure, China is treading a familiar philosophical path. Over four decades ago, the French historian and philosopher, Michel Foucault, popularised and transformed the power/knowledge concept into a growth industry.

“There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge”, he declared in his widely read book, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 (1980). The concept is now driving capitalist development globally and explaining relations within and between societies and civilisations.

China’s new power/knowledge approach to African affairs is part of its emerging African strategy. Structurally, this strategy is anchored on the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation that Beijing unveiled in 1999.

Modelled along Japan’s Tokyo International Conference on African Development, the forum meets every three years to deliberate on the ways and means of co-ordinating policy and promoting China-Africa co-operation in economic and social development.

The forum’s knowledge wing is the China-Africa Think Tanks Forum, which has just concluded its fourth meeting in South Africa (September 9-10).
China is taking rather seriously the production of knowledge on its relations with Africa.

Unsurprisingly, Beijing dispatched no less than 65 of its top policy thinkers, diplomats and academic experts on African affairs as delegates to the fourth meeting of the think tanks. The meeting also drew nearly 40 scholars and experts on China-African relations from universities and think tanks across Africa and many more from the South African government and academic institutions.

The planners and co-hosts of the 4th CATTF meeting — Zhejiang Normal University, the South African Department of International Relations and Co-operation and the Mapungubwe Institute of Strategic Reflection — see its results as directly feeding into the preparation for the 6th China-Africa forum ministerial forum in December 2015 in South Africa.

The stakes are even higher: In the wake of President Jacob Zuma’s working visit to China from September 2-4, 2015, the meeting has been upgraded to a full the forum Summit of Heads of State.

The 4th think tank meeting closely followed the four thematic pillars currently driving China’s African strategy.

First is China’s idea of “developmental peace”. Chinese scholars are contrasting the West’s largely political “liberal peace” with their own “developmental peace”, captured by what Chinese President Xi Jing Ping describes as China’s “peaceful rise” to the superpower status.

Ideologically and globally, China’s “peaceful rise” is seeking to replace the current hard-power and West-centric world with a soft power, multi-polar global order.

The idea of developmental peace is manifested in China’s increased involvement in peace-keeping, conflict resolution and humanitarian interventions in Africa.

In the wake of the Ebola virus menace in West Africa, China dispatched a powerful medical team that operated units to contain the epidemic and treat its victims.

The second pillar is development co-operation. Setting the stage for debate on Africa’s development agenda is the “Post-2015 Development Agenda,” a UN-led consultative process seeking to define a future global development agenda and framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals that ends this year.

Chinese strategists on Africa rightly view Beijing’s support for the African Union’s 2063 agenda on the “Africa we Want” as the most effective way of promoting sustainable and shared development.

The third pillar is trade and investment. China’s trade with Africa stood at $222 billion last year. During his visit to Africa in 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised to double bilateral trade with Africa to $400 billion by 2020. Beijing is supporting Africa’s industrialisation and infrastructure building, including roads, modern railways and airways.

The “Silk road” or on-line trading is the newest frontier in Africa-China trade.

The fourth pillar is the people-to-people diplomacy. The 4th think-tank meeting itself signified the growing interaction between Chinese and African non-state actors. At the heart of this people-centred diplomacy is conception of the China-Africa relations as a “dialogue of civilisations” — a conscious negation of the “clash of civilisation” thesis.

Today, China has established no less than 30 Confucian institutes across Africa.

China’s sharpest instrument in the battle for the soul of Africa is the New Development Bank, formerly referred to as the Brics Development Bank, a multilateral development bank operated by the five Brics states (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

With its headquarters in Shanghai, China, and a regional office in Johannesburg, the bank is poised to radically change global relations of power by providing an alternative — and a rival — to the West-led World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Africa needs a long-term strategy to profitably engage China and the New Development Bank in order to reap maximum benefits for its people.

Prof Kagwanja is chief executive, Africa Policy Institute, [email protected]