Rethinking China’s Engagement With Africa

deborah brautigam

Deborah Brautigam presents her talk, “China and Africa: Think Again,” at Bowdoin

China’s involvement with African nations is wide and deep, and it is important for the United States to understand China’s complex investment in the continent, according to Deborah Brautigam.

Brautigam, who recently spoke at Bowdoin, is a professor of comparative politics at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the author of The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, published in 2010 by Oxford University Press. Invited to Bowdoin College by the Government Department, Brautigan underscored the many activities that China manages in Africa, from infrastructure projects to illegal trade in forestry products, ivory and small arms.

Both the United States and China are invested in Africa — but in very different ways. “We [the West] believe that countries need aid and good governance to develop. We think that Africa needs to be saved,” Brautigam said. “The Chinese think differently. They think aid is about diplomacy and soft power. They think Africa is very interesting for business.” While these are “very different mindsets,” neither is better than the other, she added.

China, for instance, is not contributing huge amounts of aid dollars to Africa. The United States and Europe give much more, in line with their philosophies about how to engage with African nations. This myth about robust Chinese aid to Africa is one of the many distortions that cloud the U.S.’s understanding of Chinese involvement with Africa. Another commonly believed fiction is that China is only a recent actor in Africa. In truth, in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese sailors and merchants frequently traveled to Africa, often to seek new medicines. And the Chinese are not in Africa today merely to grab natural resources — another misconception — but rather to conduct trade and build strategic diplomatic ties, according to Brautigam.

Trade in both exports and imports between China and Africa has doubled between 2000 and today. This flow of goods is considerably larger than that between Africa and the United States. And this partnership doesn’t always enrich Africa. While forestry products and poached ivory are moving out of Africa, Chinese textile products are moving in, disrupting local markets. African products can’t compete with low-cost Chinese items. “Africans running small shops are concerned about Chinese traders coming in,” Brautigam said.

To safeguard the ability to conduct business in Africa, China has been investing in African infrastructure. “The Chinese figured out really early on that this was going to be a big market for them,” Brautigam said. The nation is building roads, power plants, fiberoptic networks, wind farms, buildings and telecom structures. Indeed, Arica’s cellphone revolution is largely due to Chinese investment, she added.

Brautigam reinforced the need for the United States to better understand the relationship between China and African countries in order to more wisely shape our aid and political actions in the continent. “We tend to look at China in a distorted mirror,” she said. “We need a more evidence-based, realistic picture.”

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