Xi's African balancing act
China sees itself as the world's biggest developing country, so it is natural that President Xi Jinping should have devoted so much time during his first overseas trip since taking office to the budding African continent. No nation does as much trade with the region, nor is there another so dedicated to cementing good relations. But concern among some Africans that the Chinese are more interested in exploitation than partnership means that what has seemed like a headlong rush for resources, investment and business has to be better managed and balanced. That will require ties based on co-operation and mutual benefit.
Xi set the right tone in a speech in Tanzania, the first of three African stops. He said there was a need to "respect Africa's dignity and independence". It was an acknowledgement that China faces challenges in building trust and convincing that its motives are not entirely about self interest. He could well have been responding to Nigeria's respected central bank governor Lamido Sanusi, who earlier this month likened China's approach to the continent to colonialism.
China's ever-expanding engagement could easily give that impression. Extracting minerals to power Chinese growth and development is a major activity. Trade, valued last year at US$200 billion, has grown 20 times since China launched its economic and diplomatic push in 2000. Direct investment has surged 60 per cent since 2009 and Chinese entrepreneurs, traders and workers are pouring in. Some estimates put the number of migrants at close to two million. Africans have a host of other concerns: trade imbalances, workers' rights, the environment, cheap Chinese exports flooding markets and a fall in African industrial output.
China, to its credit, has shown a willingness to make improvements. Chinese companies have been told to respect laws, improve environmental protection and hire more local workers. Xi has reflected concerns well during his stops in Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo. He has unveiled training and scholarship programmes, pledged aid and assured that its aims are for joint benefit, not to plunder.
There will be no significant shift in China's policy. The nation will continue to seek closer political and commercial ties. But with greater engagement comes increased challenges and risks. Xi has set the right course; he has to ensure that respect and balance remain the focus of relations.