China's national rejuvenation and Africa's role in it
rior to the 19th century, relations in East Asia were organised quite differently from the Westphalian system of sovereign states. In fact no concept existed for such an ingrained system (which was in place for about 2 000 years), until a volume edited by the historian John Fairbank (1968) coined it The Chinese World Order. This order was organised in a concentric circle according to Confucian values and cultural proximity to China, which placed it at the very centre of the system. Countries from afar would even participate in kowtow rituals and offer tributes of gold and pearls to maintain trade and relations with China. Of course, as history tells us, this order crumbled primarily due to the Middle Kingdom’s inability to respond to Western technology and aggressive foreign policy, symbolised by its defeat in the Opium Wars (1839 – 1860).
Fast forward to 18 October 2017 when China held its historic 19th National Party Congress – convened every five years – that marked the end of President Xi Jinping’s first term. The event is significant in China’s national political landscape: it’s where the Chinese Communist Party’s policies are announced and achievements applauded.
Unlike former leader Deng Xiaopeng (1978–1989), who advocated for China to bide time and hide its strength, Xi’s declarations at the congress portrayed a different standpoint. In his trademark confident manner, he proclaimed: “The Chinese nation is a great nation; it has been through hardships and adversity but remains indomitable. The Chinese people are a great people; they are industrious and brave and they never pause in pursuit of progress.” He asserted that it’s "time for China to take centre stage", describing it as a "Great Power" more than two dozen times.
What Xi says is more than just rhetoric. Analysts have pointed that much of what he pronounces he puts into action, such as the wide-reaching anti-corruption drive launched in 2012. This only casts renewed attention on the ‘great rejuvenation of the nation’ – a phrase coined by Xi when he was elected in 2012 – which reinforces China’s concerted interest in becoming a great nation once more.
"In a world increasingly characterised as interdependent, it is no longer possible to conceive of a system dominated solely by one superpower."
How does Africa, a region that shared limited links with China during its imperial rule, fit into China’s vision for a "new era"? Since the last party congress in 2012, China has historically emphasised relations with great powers, followed by relations with its own neighbourhood and, lastly, developing countries.
In a world increasingly characterised as interdependent, it is no longer possible to conceive of a system dominated solely by one superpower. China understands this and, contrary to its calls for rejuvenation, which are often made to fuel national confidence, the country is more cautious in its external assertions. Xi stated in his address last week: "No matter what stage of development it reaches, China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion."
Now more than ever, China’s economic power places it at the cusp of global prominence. It contributes more peacekeeping troops to the United Nations (UN) than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council and has announced its drive to build a world-class military by 2050. Other nations have yet to accept China’s role. Some apprehension stems from the past, when former rising powers – like Napoleonic France, post-Meiji Japan and the former Soviet Union – challenged the resident power, resulting in conflict (the so-called Thucydides Trap). China is left with the challenge of convincing the outside world that its trajectory is different and non-threatening.
This is where the continent features. It may not be the most politically or economically important region – it constitutes a small percentage of China’s global trade – in comparison to China’s other relations but there are indications that ties with Africa could become more significant. This spans beyond Africa’s potential as an unsaturated market for investment with a growing consumer base.
The much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an alternative cross-regional trade and integration scheme set to propel globalisation, proposed by Xi in 2013, is making great strides in Africa. While the continent hardly featured in China’s original plans, completed projects such as the Ethiopia-Djibouti and Mombasa-Nairobi railways in 2016 and 2017 respectively, as well as ever-deepening China-Egypt relations, place Africa firmly back on China’s radar.
In fact, North Africa was the first region on the continent to receive investment from the BRI-linked Silk Road Fund in 2015. Likewise, the recent opening of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti was agreed upon shortly after it committed to deeper engagement on global peacekeeping at the UN in September 2015. The continent is a window into China’s growing prominence in the UN Security Council and its interest in assuming responsibility for global order.
While there is concern from the continent’s other external partners and civil society over the rapidly deepening links between China and Africa, African policymakers have responded positively to global initiatives like the BRI which are linked to the continent’s own development priorities. This is a contrast to the notable security challenges and historical discord the initiative faces in Central Asia, as well as to China’s relations with India, who did not attend the former’s much publicised BRI Summit earlier this year.
Africa appears as a positive chapter in China's global trajectory as it has been more receptive to its initiatives. The question is whether both sides can continue to find synergies in their respective interests and whether China’s pledges to the continent (such as the $60 billion pledged at the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation Summit in Johannesburg in late 2015) will bring about tangible and wide-reaching benefits to Africans who fall outside of official diplomatic and business circles. As the imperial tributary system highlighted, the Chinese-centred world was essentially a dynamic social process and in the end China was actually unable to reinforce it without support of other nations. The same can be said about China’s role in the world today. As Xi recognises: "No country alone can handle all the challenges that mankind faces and no country can retreat into self-isolation."
(Main image: Lintao Zhang/Getty)