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Ruthless player or development partner? Britain's ambiguous reaction to China in Africa

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2011


British reactions to China's increasing engagement with Africa in recent years have been manifested in particularly negative and reductive ways tending to depict China's presence in Africa as destructive and self-serving, in contrast to Britain's more enlightened, supportive approach. However, more recently official discourse has begun to stress the shared outlook between British and Chinese objectives, emphasising Chinese moves towards a more constructive, development-focused approach in Africa. This article discusses the ways in which China in Africa is viewed in British political circles and assesses the degree to which such views resonate with the British sense of its own idealised identity. It suggests that the two narratives represent two sides of a dual ‘liberal’ approach to the problem of ‘non-liberal’ actors in international politics: first the tendency to reject and see them as outside the international order; and second the attempt to rehabilitate them and bring them within it. The article concludes by exploring a number of reasons for the particular ways in which Britain, China and Africa are configured, arguing that this dual conception represents a sense of ambiguity about the potential universality of liberalism.

Research Article
Copyright © British International Studies Association 2011

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1 Throughout the article I will be discussing sub-Saharan Africa (hereafter simply referred to as ‘Africa’). In ignoring north Africa I am reflecting the British policy understanding of the continent which groups north Africa in with the Middle East (MENA). Egypt, Libya and Algeria, for example, are therefore treated as part of a region which offers more pressing and complex political, economic and security interests and challenges to that of sub-Saharan Africa which is largely viewed in terms of aid and development. The exception to this is South Africa which has always appeared to present exceptional political and trade interests.

2 For an example of this more cautious approach which both welcomes the potential benefits of China's engagement in Africa, while gently pointing towards the importance of promoting good governance, see DfID fact sheet: ‘Promoting Growth in Africa: working with China’ (2006), available at: {} cited on 7 July 2009.

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6 New Labour's adoption in 1997 of a foreign policy with an ‘ethical element’, and the establishment of DfID, were part of an attempt to differentiate itself from the outgoing Conservative administration which had pursued a more overtly realist foreign policy, in which international development was relatively neglected. On Africa in particular, its approach had been defined by what Labour regarded as a sacrifice of principle to material interests in the refusal to impose sanctions on South Africa in the 1980s, and neglect, as in the failure to intervene to prevent the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The establishment of DfID, in particular, was meant to demonstrate the increased importance of international aid, and the separation of the aid agenda from the more ‘political’ FCO. DfID came to represent the ‘moral wing’ of government. See Gallagher, Julia, Britain and Africa under Blair: in pursuit of the good state (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming, 2011).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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11 This approach was shared across the mainstream political spectrum, by Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs, Labour ministers, special advisors and officials from DfID and the FCO. Gallagher, Julia, ‘Healing the Scar: idealism, Africa and British policy under Blair’, African Affairs, 108:432 (2009), pp. 435451CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

12 Blair described British policy in Africa in these terms in a speech he made in Ethiopia: Tony Blair, ‘Speech on Africa, Addis Ababa, 7 October 2004’, Downing Street Website, {} cited on 16 March, 2006.

13 Gallagher, ‘Healing the Scar’.

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19 Interviews with FCO and DfID officials (2007–2009).

20 Geldof and Bono have both been drafted in to support the political parties’ development agendas. For example, Geldof was a key player in Blair's Africa Commission, and was later recruited by David Cameron to help formulate Conservative policy on aid. Bono has made appearances at both parties’ annual conferences. Both they, alongside British development NGOs and churches, were particularly vocal in supporting Blair's ‘year for Africa’ in 2005, formulating and promoting the Make Poverty History Campaign. See Harrison, Graham, ‘The Africanization of Poverty: a retrospective on “Make Poverty History”’, African Affairs, {doi:10.1093/afraf/adq025}Google Scholar .

21 On this, see Martin, Guy, ‘Continuity and Change in Franco-African Relations’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 22:1 (1995)Google Scholar .

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24 Strauss, Julia, ‘The Past in the Present: historical and rhetorical lineages in China's relations with Africa’, China Quarterly, 199 (2009), pp. 777795CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

25 Ibid.

26 Shen, Simon, ‘A Constructed (un)reality on China's Re-entry into Africa: the Chinese online community perception of Africa (2006–2008)’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 47:3 (2009), pp. 425448CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

27 Ibid., p. 439.

28 Ibid., p. 441.

29 For example, the Queen's speech immediately following the 2010 election promised that the new government would honour the previous government's commitment to increasing overseas aid to 0.7 per cent of GNI by 2013. See {} cited on 17 June 2010.

30 The colonial era allowed far more leeway to overtly aggressive approaches to Africa. The defence of British material interests – its need for markets and primary commodities, its jostling with European colonial powers for position and influence – appeared to be more natural and justifiable than are allowed in Britain today. It might therefore be argued that the colonial era contained a greater (if tacit) acknowledgement that altruism was mixed in with self-interest than is the case, certainly in Britain, today.

31 For example, see Buxton, Thomas Fowell, The African Slave Trade and its Remedy (London: John Murray, 1840)Google Scholar ; Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold's Ghost: a story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999)Google Scholar ; Kynoch, Gary, ‘“Your Petitioners are in Mortal Terror”: the violent world of Chinese workers in South Africa, 1904–1910’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 31:3 (2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

32 Colley, Linda, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837, 2nd edition (New Haven, Conn. London: Yale Nota Bene, 2005)Google Scholar .

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37 A flavour of this can be found in a newspaper report of 1899 about the protests of liquor traffic in Africa. ‘Crowded and earnest was the meeting yesterday of the Native Races and Liquor Traffic United Committee at Grosvenor House. The Duke of Westminster took the chair. In 1894, he said, the imported spirits into Lagos were valued at £117,139. Then the duty was raised to 2s a gallon, with the result that the import of 1896 was only £58,906. In proportion the natives became industrious and respectable. Contrast Dahomey under French rule, where spirits were only taxed at 8d per gallon, and the consumption rose from 1,000,000f worth in 1894 to 4,000,000f worth in 1896.’ The Star, ‘Gin-Soaked Africa’ (18 May 1899), p. 2.

38 Governor Edward Cardew to the Secretary of State for the Colonial Office (Rt Hon, Joseph Chamberlain), 28 May 1898, Government papers Colonial Office Dispatches, Sierra Leone (1898).

39 Mawdsley, Emma, ‘Fu Manchu Versus Dr Livingstone in the Dark Continent? Representing China, Africa and the West in British broadsheet newspapers’, Political Geography, {doi; 10.1016/j.polgeo.2008.03.006} (2008)Google Scholar .

40 Interview (27 June 2007).

41 Young, ‘A Project to be Realised’.

42 See Governance and Social Development Resource Centre website: {http//}.

43 Blair, ‘Speech on Africa, Addis Ababa, 7 October 2004’.

44 Such a view both underestimates Chinese ideological motivations, and the plurality of Chinese actors. See Taylor, Ian, China's New Role in Africa (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2009)Google Scholar and Alden, et al. (eds), China Returns to Africa.Google Scholar

45 Interview, Baroness Jenny Tonge, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on International Development, 1997–2004 (17 May 2007).

46 Interview, Jeremy Corbyn, MP, Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Angola (31 January 2007).

47 Interview, Chris Mullin, MP, Minister for Africa, 2003–2005 (21 March 2007).

48 Baroness Patricia Rawlings, comments during the House of Lords Debate, ‘Africa: Chinese Investment’ (6 February 2007), {–02–06b.593.233} cited on 19 May 2009.

49 Interview, John Bercow, MP, Conservative Spokesman for International Development, 2003–2005 (23 April 2007).

50 Interview, John Austin, MP, Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethiopia (19 February 2007).

51 Interview, Sally Keeble, MP, International Development Minister, 2002–2003 (4 June 2007).

52 Baroness Lindsay Northover, comments during the House of Lords Debate, ‘Africa: Chinese Investment’ (6 February 2007), {–02–06b.593.233} cited on 19 May 2009.

53 Interview, Baroness Lindsay Northover, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson for International Development, 2003-present (14 June 2007).

54 Lord Holme of Cheltenham, comments during the House of Lords Debate, ‘Africa: Chinese Investment’ (6 February 2007), {–02–06b.593.233} cited on 19 May 2009.

55 Archbishop of York, comments during the House of Lords Debate, ‘Africa: Chinese Investment’ (6 February 2007), {–02–06b.593.233} cited on 19 May 2009.

56 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The UK and China: a framework for Engagement, p. 3Google Scholar .

57 Ibid., p. 4.

58 Large, Daniel, ‘Africa's international China relations: contending imaginaries and changing politics amidst the realities of consolidation’, in preparation for Mangala, Jacques (ed.), Africa in Contemporary International Relations (Palgrave, forthcoming 2010)Google Scholar .

59 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The UK and China: a framework for Engagement, p. 5Google Scholar .

60 See Carr, E. H., The Twenty Years’ Crisis 1991–1939 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001)Google Scholar . Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development between 1997 and 2002, described the Government's approach to ‘enlightened self-interest’ or harmonious interests in the following way: ‘Whether it was the case in the past, and it probably was in the heyday of Empire, that what was morally right and what was in Britain's self-interest were probably contradictory, it is no longer the case. And I mean that, I'm not just rationalising it. And that's a delight because you don't have any confusion, you can just get on with what's right: it's in Africa's interest, it's in Europe's interest, it's in the world's interest.’ Interview (6 June 2007).

61 Comment made by a DfID official (12 October 2009).

62 Ibid.

63 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The UK and China: a framework for Engagement, p. 11.

64 Conversation with FCO official (1 October 2009).

65 See, for example, the DfID paper ‘Promoting Growth in Africa: working with China’, published on the DfID website: {} cited on 16 October 2009.

66 Conversation with a Chinese diplomat (4 November 2009).

67 Wang, Hongying, ‘Multilateralism in Chinese Foreign Policy: the limits of socialization’, Asian Survey, 40:3 (2000), p. 484CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

68 Ibid., p. 486.

69 Fox, John and Godement, Francoise, Power Audit of EU-China Relations, European Council on Foreign Relations (17 April 2009)Google Scholar .

70 Kristeva, Julia, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Roudiez, Leon S. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 52Google Scholar .

71 Ibid.

72 Kaplan, Robert, ‘The Coming Anarchy’, Atlantic Monthly (February 1994)Google Scholar .

73 Peter Hitchens, ‘How China has created a new slave empire in Africa’, Mail Online (28 September 2008), {…-How-China-created-new-slave-empire-Africa.html} cited on 14 May 2009; David Blair, ‘Why China is trying to colonise Africa’, (1 March 2009), {} cited on 7 May 2009; Andrew Malone, ‘How China's taking over Africa, and why the West should be VERY worried’, Mail Online (18 July 2008), {} cited on 7 May 2009.

74 Gries, , China's New Nationalism, p. 11Google Scholar .

75 Kristeva, , Strangers to OurselvesGoogle Scholar .

76 Shen, ‘A Constructed (un)reality on China's Re-entry into Africa’, p. 442.

77 Ibid.