China’s Non-Interference Policy and Growing African Concerns – By Alula A. Iyasu

In October 2012, the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) held a China-Africa Forum in Bishoftu, Ethiopia.  The event was perhaps the first of its kind held in Ethiopia with academics, policy makers and other stakeholders from the two regions participating in an open discussion about the economic, political and social relations between Africa and China.  Most of the discussions focused on the economic relationships between China and Africa.  Both China and Africa are developing regions albeit at different stages of development.  China’s focus on infrastructure building as a key engine of development is a model emulated by many African countries.  The two regions have increasingly strengthened their economic and trade relations which many see as complementary:  Africa needs access to capital, foreign direct investment (FDI) and technology transfers while China needs raw materials, resources and access to markets for its goods and services.  To date, China has invested over $178 billion dollars in Africa while direct investment by African companies in China has reached over $9 billion.   No matter how skewed the trade balance or how small Chinese investment compared to the last 30 years of investment in Africa by the West, China’s investment in Africa is not only much needed, but is welcomed by African governments.  One reason for this is the appeal China’s non-interference policy has on many African governments which guides China’s economic relations with Africa.  The non-interference policy states that China does not meddle in the internal affairs of nations.  As Professor Lututala Mumpasi Bernard, Deputy Executive Secretary at the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa put it, it is “devoid of political conditionality”[1].  However, many African scholars and policy makers are increasingly of the opinion that China’s policy of non-interference is “both deceptive and divisive, and could have the effect of preventing amicable resolution of conflicts” in Africa.  (Sesay, A. and Odeh, L.)[2] They blame China’s indiscriminate investments in good and bad governments alike, with its particular affinity for corrupt and dictatorial governments, for undermining peace and security in the region such as seen in North and South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Non-interference policy has been serving China well since 1954.  The policy derives from the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.  The policy was designed to reach out to non-communist countries in Asia as well as reflect solidarity with newly independent post-colonial states in Africa, with an emphasis on territorial sovereignty defined in the most rigid and traditional Westphalian terms.  Although non-interference applies to military interventions and regime change, the principle has been China’s modus-operandi in its investment and economic interactions with Africa and the rest of the world.

It is worth remembering that the policy was embraced by many African nations as it came to represent, particularly from the early 1990s onward, an alternative to the American conception of a new kind of world order “” one in which smaller and “third-world” countries, found it increasingly difficult to manage their own political and economic affairs.  Non-interference was viewed as a refreshing departure from the prescriptive policy of the West which forced African governments into the straitjacket of the so-called “Washington consensus” with its structural adjustment policies designed to mold Africa in the  image of the West.[3] Structural adjustment and other Western driven economic prescriptions for Africa have proved detrimental to African countries, at worst, and unfit to African political, social and economic realities, at best.  By contrast, the hallmark of China’s economic relations with Africa, in line with its non-interference policy and its non-prescriptive nature was received enthusiastically by many African governments.  The policy’s emphasis on the state as the principle actor for economic development, contrary to the West’s vilification of the state and emphasis on the private-sector, also meant that African nations with a yet to mature private-sector fully embraced China as their economic partner and source of capital for development.  That said, the policy has been applied selectively to suit China’s interest at various times, beginning in its earliest days of implementation, circa 1960s and 70s when China supported revolutionary movements in Africa and Asia.  Even today, at the U.N. Security Council, China often abstains or refrains from voting on resolutions that mandate sanctions or interventions to reverse invasions, end civil wars, or stop terrorism, instead of voting “no” and vetoing such interventions.  This allows several interventions to go ahead without China having to reverse its commitment to non-intervention.

The narrative of those calling for China to revise its non-interference policy claim that in its thirst for resources and raw materials, China is propping up bad governments through investments and access to cheap capital worth billions of dollars.  For example, China has invested close to $30 billion dollars in the oil rich Sudan and served as Sudan’s primary trading partner when the rest of the world shunned it for the atrocities it committed in Darfur.  Furthermore, from 1999 to 2005, a period that includes the start of the Darfur crisis, Sudan’s imports of small arms increased by 680 percent, to $55 million worth, with China making up 90 percent of those sales.[4] China has also invested over $4 billion dollars in the Democratic Republic of Congo dating back to 2001, the height of the conflict in the DRC.[5] These and other examples, continues this narrative, show that China’s investment practices under the auspices of the non-interference policy, are exacerbating violence, conflict  and instability in Africa with detrimental spill-over effects in neighboring countries.  Opponents of the view that China is a spoiler of peace, on the other hand, insist that non-interference does not equal indifference.  They argue that African peace and security is first and foremost, the responsibility of Africans.  China supports African states in maintaining peace and stability by enhancing diplomatic relations and providing the space for dialogue and peaceful resolution of conflicts.  They also point out Chinese contribution to UN peacekeeping missions in Africa, both military and civilian personnel.  Further, China’s economic support of African nations is designed to eradicate conflict by addressing the root cause of conflict: poverty.  According to Professor Hongsheng Sheng, of the  Law School of Zhejiang Sci-Tech University, “Peace should parallel development and the key method to eliminating war is to eliminate the causes from which wars arise.”

Many within Africa, however, seem to think that non-interference is no longer sustainable in light of China’s growing economic importance to Africa and its emerging superpower status.    The policy has allowed China to “stay silent” in times of crises in Africa,  or wait until other nations interfere, prompting many African analysts to accuse China of “reaping the benefits of peace and security underwritten” by its co-members at the United Nations Security Council.[6] No doubt non-interference was a workable model when China’s economic interaction with the world in general and Africa in particularly was at a minimal. With China’s status as a global power, however, many argue that non-interference is not a policy befitting a global power with growing international responsibilities and obligations.  Simply put, with power comes responsibility!

Exactly what type of “interference” revisionists of non-interference policy are advocating varies widely.  One thing is clear: no one is calling for the kinds of interference the likes of which Africa experienced and continues to experience from the West which drove African governments towards China in the first place.  That is not a desirable alternative neither for good or bad governments in Africa.  Revision of non-interference should mean a balanced act of investment and conflict sensitivity by the Chinese and a more robust engagement of African nations with China beyond the purely economic sphere.  For starters, African governments may be served well by viewing China less as a panacea for all the ills of their respective countries. African governments bear the bulk of the responsibility in defining their relations with China.  They also bear the primary responsibility in strengthening their domestic as well as regional institutions of peace and security.  They have the responsibility to invest in critical areas of human development such as education, health and job creation as well as strengthening institutions, combating corruption and crime.  Chinese investments need to be seen as a means to an end and not an end in itself and such investments earmarked for priority areas in human development and security.  Africans also need to insist that China support the national, regional (Regional Economic Communities or RECs) and continental institutions for peace and security which lack funding and technical support.  To this end, African governments need to move from competition among themselves for Chinese investment and work together to identify areas of critical technical and financial support for a continental peace dividend.   The Chinese, for their part, should make a concerted effort in abiding by the principles of “Do No Harm” ensuring their investments are not fueling conflict and undermining peace and security in the continent.  China should consider conflict sensitivity analysis to play a central role in its investment calculations, particularly in volatile regions of Africa.

Such a paradigm shift of relationship towards a more comprehensive partnership beyond economics requires an increased cultural and social understanding between the two regions.  Africa needs Chinese investors just as much as it needs academicians and cultural experts.  China needs to increase its efforts for cultural and social understanding of African nations through encouraging and funding researches by Chinese institutions and students and vice versa.  China lacks the expertise in African peace building, an area which needs to be part and parcel of Chinese investment policy in Africa.  African countries need to find ways of linking their local peace building institutions with Chinese institutions and funds for sharing and transferring of knowledge and experiences which should serve as a springboard for economic, social and political interactions between the two regions at all levels.

Whether China likes it or not, it plays a significant role in peace and security in Africa; negatively, through its absence, and positively, through an increased partnership with African states and institutions working for peace and security.  There are signs that Beijing is pushing the boundaries of its non-interference policy further into a sphere beyond the purely economic interaction with African nations and perhaps into contributing positively to peace and security in the continent.  The anti-piracy mission of the Chinese navy off the coast of Somalia and the announcement by Beijing of the launch of the “Initiative on China-Africa Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Security” are good starts.

Alula A. Iyasu is the Managing Director of Bridge International, Corp., an investment and trade advisory group with a focus in Sub-Saharan Africa.

[1] Challenges and Opportunities for China-Africa Cooperation in Developing Governance, Peace and Security in Africa in the New Global Era.

[2] China’s Engagements with Africa: Implications for South-South Cooperation.

[3] Mohammed, Abdul, “China’s Rise and Africa’s Strategic Opportunity”.

[5] Nathan, Andrew J., “The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007.

[6] Mariani, Bernardo, “Development through Peace: Practical Steps for Deepening China-Africa Cooperation in the Field of Peace and Security.”

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3 thoughts on “China’s Non-Interference Policy and Growing African Concerns – By Alula A. Iyasu

  1. While visiting the African continent in 1996, then Chinese President Jiang Zemin put forward a five-point proposal on establishing a long-term, stable Sino-African relationship of stability and cooperation that is geared to the 21st century. The five points include sincere friendship, treating each other equally, unity and cooperation, common development and looking into the future. The proposal has become the foundation of China’s policy toward Africa. The new Chinese leadership, carrying forward the cause of the old leadership and forging ahead into the future, adheres to China’s policy toward Africa, and pays attention to strengthening unity and cooperation between the two.

  2. Correct me if I am wrong, but does article suggest that Africa needs to rely on economic and political ‘advisory’ from a country of group of countries to be successful? I find this idea very condescending to the many brilliant men and women in governance on the continent. You rightfully mention that it is the interference policy of the West that drove Africa into the arms of China…so why then do we need to explore an option that completely failed us? I cannot understand why when the continent is doing great should we want to revisit the oppressiveness of Western policies….look at where that got us? The continent lost a lot of ground in terms of growth, stability, peace and development and now that we’ve seemingly gotten on a good development path…we question motives? I am obviously pro-china……economic development spurs change tht leads to democratic awareness, technological advancement, strengthening of civil society et al. Every countries cycle or path of development varies….Africa needs to experiment with as many options as possible. No one has the magic formula for development…Africa and Africans will need to figure that out themselves and that is exactly what China offers!

  3. If China does all that is suggested above, what will the leaders that we elect do? It is precisely because the west, despite its ugly history in Africa, has been forcing itself upon the continent leaving no wriggle room for African initiative to solve Africa’s problem that we turned to China and all other like minded countries and so rightly resent and shun the west. You are suggesting we return to this failed, contemptuous, condescending and un-dignifying model. Question to ask you, if China started making similar demands of us (Thank goodness they are too sensible to do so) Where would we start with running the affairs of the Chinese? Let us trade with China, not invite them to run our continent for us. It is reasonable to request them to work with us diplomatically at the UN or other international bodies but anything beyond that is like asking them to come and rule us. We must make our own choices as Africans, for better or worse, so we own our own problems and hand our destiny to our children and not the children of westerners or the Chinese. we have been owned and colonised already, it has not been pretty and we must not give such a nightmarish future to our children, now that we have a choice and a bit of leverage.

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