Canada should engage China via Africa

Bilateral concerns dominated the substance and media coverage of the prime minister's trip to China earlier this month, from the long-awaited investment agreement to 'panda diplomacy.' But Canadian officials also discussed various international crises with their Chinese counterparts, such as Syria's civil war. China is a principal global player, and its interests and influence from the Korean peninsula and the Middle East to the Arctic are undeniable. Another region where China's 'peaceful rise' to prominence is particularly recognizable is Africa. Across the continent China's senior officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, state-owned enterprises, emigrants, temporary labourers, peacekeepers, money, and goods are increasingly ubiquitous. Since 2008 a Chinese navy task force has patrolled the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia against piracy. In March 2011 China evacuated 35,000 nationals from Libya in 10 days, a massive and well co-ordinated effort. Chinese loans, investment, and export credits have changed the development assistance landscape. China is also the continent's largest trading partner; two-way trade reached $150 billion in 2011. This includes one-third of China's oil imports plus substantial minerals, strategic commodities that fuel its domestic consumption, and export-oriented manufacturing. China is not a new presence in Africa. Before direct bilateral relations were established in 1970, Canada and China were quiet Cold War adversaries in Egypt, Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia. Canada's status in Africa ascended from the mid 1970s while Chinese leadership focused elsewhere. Canada helped unlock Africa's natural resource riches via both technical assistance and risk-seeking capital raised on the Toronto and Vancouver stock exchanges. Today, however, China overwhelms Canada across much of Africa. Canada's failed attempt to win a UN Security Council seat in October 2010 is at least partly explained by the country's reduced official profile in Africa. Prescription for engagement So Canada has a choice to make. It can ignore, compete against, or engage China in Africa. Engagement can accomplish both narrow and broader Canadian foreign policy goals. But Africa's importance to Canada is not well understood. Too often Africa is considered a backwater of Canadian foreign policy, of 'humanitarian interest' only and thus of marginal relevance. The irony is that the continent is not only of growing importance to Beijing, it is more intrinsically important to Canada than ever before. Canada boasts large and growing African (and Chinese) diasporas who stay well connected 'back home.' Canadian foreign direct investment in Africa's natural resource sectors has grown as fast as in Latin America. Canada's total natural resource FDI in Africa, over $25 billion, is second only to Latin America (about $60 billion), and much higher than elsewhere. Canada-Africa trade grew over 70 per cent in five years, reaching nearly $13 billion by 2010. African economies outpaced global growth for most of the last decade. In 2012 they may average six per cent, with a handful of countries surpassing Chinese growth rates well into the future. This is not to overlook Africa's lingering crises, and deep pockets of poverty and instability. But this incongruity between 'Crisis Africa' and the 'African Lion' is precisely why Canada needs to engage the dragon's embrace there. Canada has economic interests at stake, but it also has much broader world order responsibilities that fall to sober middle powers by default. Canada gains influence in Washington, as it does in Beijing, by cultivating relationships and specialized expertise elsewhere. Africa is a region where Canada can wield unique influence given its historical ties, past leadership on international initiatives, growing economic presence, and human linkages. First, Canada should signal to African capitals, Washington, and Beijing that it understands this role. An offer to host an annual meeting of the African Development Bank in Canada, as China did in 2007, would be a symbolic first step. Second, Canadians need to rethink a predominantly multilateral approach to Africa and rebuild bilateral ties. A more attuned bilateralism can also engage Chinese officials and businesses on the ground: co-operation and learning can have long-term local impact but also filter back to influence Chinese developments. Third, many African states represent democratic and open political-economic systems that China has some difficulty navigating, but Canadians less so. Canada needs to nurture those African democracies to ensure they continue in positive directions. Fourth, Canadian businesses in Africa need to exhibit the highest standards. From safety and environment to corruption and social responsibility, businesses need guidance and support. The recent Canadian International Development Agency announcement to co-fund NGO operations in and around existing Canadian mines in Burkina Faso and Ghana may become a model for public-private initiatives that China can't quite match but will watch closely. Lastly, Canada needs to boost its profile in regional security operations. While Canada contributes big money to UN and African Union missions, the Canadian Forces have fewer than 50 personnel deployed in Africa. They play key staff and training roles in complicated multinational organizations, but given increased Canadian expeditionary capabilities a bigger footprint is required. Cultivating a more resilient Africa will lessen the potential for outside conflict there and boost opportunities for broad-based economic growth. China's embrace of Africa can no longer be ignored, but it can be productively engaged. Chris W. J. Roberts is a 'mature' PhD student in political science at the University of Alberta and a consultant with 15 years of experience working on African-related commercial, policy, and development projects.

Chris W. J. Roberts
Published: Wednesday, 02/29/2012 12:00 am EST

Bilateral concerns dominated the substance and media coverage of the prime minister's trip to China earlier this month, from the long-awaited investment agreement to 'panda diplomacy.'

If you are already a subscriber

Subscribe to Embassy

Subscribe to the print and electronic editions and get instant access to Embassy online.

Quick purchase

Purchase this week's edition of Embassy in electronic format (PDF) for $4.00

Sign up for a free trial

For access to the website.

This Week's Issue
policy briefings