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Development Lessons
Africa can learn from China's economic growth by leveraging its natural resources
By Charles Onunaiju | ChinAfrica December 2015

Mombasa Port in Kenya


There are very few cross-regional cooperations that have inspired so much intellectual interrogation and political concern as the China-Africa relationship.

Though not new and rooted in the history of the two sides since the formal show of Afro-Asian solidarity at the famous Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955, China-Africa cooperation has traversed a considerable range of agendas: from earlier solidarity defined by common principles of anti-colonialism to the current electrifying stage of strategic partnership. In addition to strategic cooperation that has driven mutual exchanges in almost all fields, including economic, political and cultural, China and Africa are gaining unprecedented visibility on the international stage as they actively and stridently call for a new architecture of the global order.

Mutual Sino-African cooperation, formalized 15 years ago through the mechanism of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), has played a significant role in raising the status and enhancing the profile of each side in the international arena. FOCAC has, since its founding in 2000, brought its unique process to bear on the dynamic momentum characterizing cooperation between China and Africa. Shorn of the traditional pomp and ceremony, like a high-profile secretariat and bureaucracy that characterizes most international associations and organizations, FOCAC is largely a goal-oriented process and mechanism that promotes dialogue and consultation. Its only visible and public gatherings are the three-yearly ministerial conferences and heads of state summits held either in China or Africa.

Notwithstanding its modest profile, FOCAC has elaborate follow-up mechanisms that ensure its activities are continuous and goals are met on schedule. The resilience of the follow-up mechanism was exemplified when after the Arab Spring and other political shocks across North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, Beijing delivered on all development assistance pledged at the Fourth Ministerial Conference held in Egypt in 2009. China has a standing desk in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that follows the FOCAC process. It would considerably complement Beijing's effort and commitment if African countries could establish such a standing mechanism to follow up on the FOCAC process. With the all-important Second FOCAC Summit scheduled in South Africa on December 4-5, China-Africa cooperation is most likely to be nudged up a further notch.

Traditionally, China-Africa cooperation has been built on equality and mutual respect and assistance. African countries actively participated in restoring the People's Republic of China's legitimate seat in the United Nations in 1971, after several years of Washington's obstruction. African countries stood shoulder to shoulder with Beijing in several international fora, especially the United Nations Human Rights Committee, defeating Western-sponsored resolutions to attack China. African countries have also usually affirmed the one-China policy.

Relevant lessons

Beyond the enduring bond of friendship, China offers broad lessons on socially inclusive development that can be relevant to Africa.

In Africa, where development has been vitiated by massive external interference, the need for indigenous paradigm for development cannot be overemphasized. This does not in any way suggest isolation, much less autarky. China is gradually moving to the mainstream of global governance structure, and is currently a strategic driver of global economic growth, contributing around 30 percent while retaining sovereign prerogatives on domestic affairs.

China's development has traditionally emphasized internal resource mobilization, with a net effect of building a domestically integrated economic structure. The massive inflow of foreign direct investment was in response to the incentive created by a highly performing national economy with enormous prospects for profitable return on investments.

In this regard Africa has huge prospects to tap into from the economies of scale in the region.

Currently, Beijing is redesigning its national economic architecture, resulting in the moderation of the pace of growth. Retooling the traditional kits that have driven the economy, Beijing is remodeling the economic structure to what it calls the "new normal," displaying a key characteristic of the reform and opening-up policy.

Africa's development trajectories, on the contrary, have revolved around well-known paradigms, designed with a good measure of local content deficit. The crucial aspect of China's development paradigm is that it is not a package but a process, shaped as it gathers momentum. Although Beijing often says it has no lesson to teach anyone, its experiences are in the public domain, and can enrich or contribute to Africa's search for an innovative and sustainable development paradigm.

Leveraging resources

Prior to the famous Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in December 1978, China in March that year drafted a 10-year development plan focused on 120 key modernization projects. They included 30 electric power stations, six trunk railroads, eight coal mines, 10 new steel plants, five harbors, nine non-ferrous metal complexes and 10 new oil and gas fields. Also in 1978, after nearly seven years of intense negotiations, China signed long-term trade agreements with Japan. Japan agreed to export modern plants, industrial technology and materials worth $10 billion and China agreed to barter the equivalent in crude oil and coal.

Notwithstanding the prickly relations between Beijing and Tokyo, by the end of 1978, China had signed more than 70 contracts whereby Japan would finance turn-key projects, while China would repay in oil and coal. These arrangements would form the background to China's modernization drive.

Professor Deborah Brautigam in her well-regarded book The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa  noted that in the 1970s, "China was primarily an agrarian economy with immense reserves of natural resources - oil, coal, gold, copper - similar in structure to many African countries today. As China began to emerge from the "cultural revolution (1966-76)" (equivalent of Africa's lost decade) and look outward, outside oil companies and mining firms began to eye China's natural resources with great interest," in much the same way as Africa's natural resources are viewed currently.

Leveraging African natural resources the way China did earlier with its own natural resources can lay the groundwork for a sustainable economic take-off. Africa even stands a better chance now than China did in the 1970s, as the rest of the world scrambles for the "last resource frontier."

China itself, with the experience of judiciously using natural resources to drive its modernization, could be far more sympathetic to the strategy if Africa could properly define the [development] model and seriously engage Beijing. Africa and China share broad sentiments on the key issues of global peace, stability and global governance driven by the rule of law. The strategic partnership of Sino-African cooperation can therefore play an important role in pushing for a global framework that strives toward mainstream peace and development.

The author is director, Center for China Studies, Abuja, Nigeria

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