Figures suggest that Asia, China in particular, is now a bigger net investor in Africa than Western countries. China’s own statistics from 2008 indicate China-Africa trade volumes at $106.8 billion, a 45.1% increase on 2007. South Africa last year alone saw bilateral trade at over $16 billion. Apart from the loss of capital, many countries in the West have taken issue with China’s strategic approach to investing in Africa.
The criticism of what is decried as a ‘strictly business’ approach mostly focuses on the lack of political conditions attached by China. A cited example includes China being the largest investor in Sudan’s oil industry. While Western countries pulled out of the industry due to civil war and human rights abuses in the country, China and their partner Malaysia were satisfied to take over where they left off. Sudan has benefited by becoming a net exporter of crude oil, and perhaps more worryingly, by China using its influence on the U.N. Security council to block sanctions in the region.
Although such situations will lead most in the West to condemn Asian practices in Africa; the same Westerners would be wise to reflect on the changing political realities on the African continent. The West’s history of colonialism and then subsequent efforts to help Africa ‘develop’ along Western lines raise serious doubts in the minds of many Africans as to the continuing ‘agenda’ of Western nations.
What will be on the minds of Africans is the developing relationship with Asia. The African cultural and intellectual sphere, in making sense of this new reality of Asian cooperation, often characterised the situation as one of ‘Asian values versus Western ways’. Ross Herbert, writing March 30th for the South African Institute of International Affairs, perhaps takes the most constructive approach to the debate. Instead of viewing the rise of Asia as diametrically opposed to that of the West, we should see their economic and developmental dynamism as shared, and arising from the embracing of common values. Some of these include the rise of modern, disciplined and accountable institutions, and merit-based hiring of employees and of public officials.
The instilment of the rule of law at the highest government levels is the key to sending out signals to the rest of the country as to how to govern itself. While both East and West can be criticised over their records both at home and in dealing with other countries, Africans, seemingly always caught in the middle, can do best for themselves by embracing those modern values which history has shown give most value to society itself.