Engulfed in the euphoria of securing additional investment from South Africa’s biggest trading partner, a buoyant South Africa President, Cyril Ramaphosa opened the 10th BRICS Summit alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping. Jinping subsequently announced China’s commitment to $14.7-billion in investments in South Africa, with a key emphasis on sectors such as oceans and green economy, energy, science and technology, agriculture, environment and finance.

Since the announcement, emphasis has shifted from the broader BRICS Summit, to analysis and concern about China’s role in Africa, and whether we are witnessing a renewed scramble for Africa, with the recent announcement being termed a “neo-colonial project”.

This criticism frames China within a historical context, based on Africa’s turbulent history with the West, and removes the idea that African states have to chart their own way forward.

This narrative also negates the evolution of Chinese foreign policy over the last decade, especially under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, and overlooks the evidence that China is engaging with the world in a more systematic way than it did before. This is partly because of the Belt and Road Initiative, and the rebuilding of connections in countries across Asia and Africa.

China’s Evolving Foreign Policy

In 2011, for the first time in its history, China released a White Paper on its foreign aid policy. The paper outlines the aid modalities that China uses to deliver developmental assistance to countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It further highlights that its policy is based on the principles of peaceful coexistence, the respect for the recipient countries’ right to independently select their own model of development and the belief that every country should explore a development path suitable to its actual conditions.

The 2014 White Paper reiterated these same principles, emphasizing that they the cornerstone of its foreign aid policy. The second paper further emphasises that “mutual respect, equality, keeping promises, mutual benefits and win-win” is what officially drives their aid policy.

Faced with the global challenges of reform and innovation, the aid policy acknowledges that “China adapts its foreign aid to the development of both domestic and international situations” and continuously adjusts and reforms its aid allocation and delivery mechanisms to improve efficacy.

The paper further asserts that unlike other international donors, China does not have elaborate “country plans” for its partner countries. Instead, after consulting with their  respective counterparts, Chinese embassies convey to Beijing the actual needs of its partner countries and how best China can provide support in particular sectors . Thus, it can be inferred from the policy document that China’s foreign aid is demand-driven.

This is in line with President Ramaphosa’s investment drive, where he articulated that his government would engage in an aggressive investment drive in both the West and the East. Prior to the announcement, diplomats from both countries engaged extensively to iron out the modalities of the $14.7-billion in investments, which includes a considerable portion being earmarked for state-owned enterprises.

It is important to emphasize that China views development financing differently than traditional aid-providers. For them, aid, trade, and investment are seen as interconnected within a mutually-beneficial framework. It is therefore poignant to not only focus on aid exclusively and separately from other modes of development financing. It is essentially an “aid-business-trade model” that combines all three into one.

As such, it would be incorrect to measure, monitor and evaluate China’s aid objectives using the same set of definitions, standards and parameters established by traditional aid donors. It would be more prudent to evaluate whether China adheres to its avowed principles of international development cooperation, comprising of features such as mutual respect, non-conditionality, equality, building local capacity and addressing the actual needs of partner countries.

No scramble. Just mutually beneficial partnerships

Africans are not passive participants in a “neo-colonial project” in relation to China. Instead, they are active economic agents who play strategic roles in the geo-political landscape. This was elucidated in the statements made by South Africa’s Minister of Trade and Industry Dr. Rob Davies, who addressed the opening of the 10th BRICS Summit in the presence of Chinese President Xi Jinping. He stated emphatically that South Africa’s trade imbalance with China was unsustainable, specifically referring to South Africa exporting raw natural resources to China.

Those who continue to frame China’s investment and trade within Africa as one of exploitation, would see Rob Davies’ statements as both audacious and confrontational. However, China understands that its engagement with South Africa and the rest of the developing world, as stated in its foreign-aid policy white paper, has to be mutually-beneficial, and for the benefit of the partner country, in this case South Africa.

This does not mean that there are not isolated instances where Chinese aid/investment/trade has not reached the desired outcome, for both China and the partner country. However, this also does not mean its aid/ investment/ trade has a sinister agenda.  As stated in their own foreign aid policy white paper, they do not have elaborate “country plans” for its recipient countries, and instead its often demand-driven.

Some have argued that these white papers are in direct contrast to the Belt and Road Initiative, which has guided China’s foreign policy in recent years. In some instances it is true, however, within the context of South Africa, and the recent announcement by President Xi Jinping of $14.7-billion in investments, it is not.

Greater analysis needs to be given to China’s “aid-business-trade model”, which operates in a different paradigm than the traditional developmental aid organisations. This would negate measuring, monitoring and evaluating China’s aid objectives using the same set of definitions, standards and parameters established by traditional developmental aid donors.

Fazlin Fransman is a Senior Researcher at Moja Research Institute