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Review: China returns to Africa


China returns to AfricaChina returns to Africa?, Chris Alden, Daniel Large and Ricardo Soares de Oliveira (eds), Hurst, 382 pages


This collection of 19 essays provides a much needed antidote to the hysteria that grips a great deal of recent writing about China’s re-engagement with the continent. Politics, economics and the diplomacy of the Sino-African nuptials are of course covered, but there are forays into less covered territory – medicine, labour relations, and the diaspora. The breadth of subject matter is matched by the wide array of writers, including the welcome addition of several essays from Chinese authors. We learn that France is mostly untroubled so far by China in Africa, as its focus on high-tech deep-water oil extraction, and service companies like logistics and telecoms, puts it out of direct competition. We discover the Portuguese ‘commonwealth’ has been commandeered by the Chinese as a smart way to reach Angola, Mozambique, and also Brazil.?


But the problem about China’s rise is the sheer number of variables that can be endlessly argued over, as demonstrated in the very first article, which poses the question: China’s economic boom, what’s in it for Africa? Yes, the demand for commodities, one of the principal ways in which Africa is linked to the world economy, has boosted many African countries’ income streams, allowing them to channel this money into infrastructure projects which could well be foundation stones for future growth. But the long-term decline in the value of primary goods compared to finished items, means that for a country to develop, it needs to get out of exporting raw materials and into manufacturing. The huge array of cut-price Chinese goods available now acts as a de-industrialising pressure, to which few have an answer.


On oil investment, surely at the heart of these early days in the rekindled relationship between China and Africa, Soares de Oliveira moves us away from the ‘alarmist’ tub-thumping of US Congressmen or the ‘revisionist’ approach which refuses to admit any negative consequences. It is the African elites who welcome Chinese oil companies, using them as bartering tools to extract better deals from Western predecessors and helping to shield them from Western concerns over authoritarian regimes.?


In the end, one is left wondering whether China’s return to Africa has not held up a mirror to the West. The clamour and fear that characterises some responses in the Western media does not hide the fact that many are uncomfortable about their own countries’ engagement with Africa. Do France and Britain feel good about the actions of their oil companies? Is the European Union comfortable about the effects of the Common Agricultural Policy on the livelihoods of African farmers? Is the US relaxed with the amount spent on the war in Iraq in one day ($343m, according to US Department of Defence estimates) and the lack of (relatively cheap) helicopter support given to peacekeepers in Darfur? As China’s engagement with the continent deepens, and as China “tries to manage the high expectations it has generated”, this volume offers an atlas to those steering through the cross-currents of the relationship.

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