As a rising power in the international system, China is keen on shaping the global rules, norms and practices according to its long-term strategy. Strengthening and consolidating its position in the regional and global organisations will help Beijing to secure more international clout while shielding itself from international scrutiny on sensitive issues. China is specifically increasing its engagements with the regional organisations of the developing world, especially with countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, with whom it is also intensifying its economic cooperation on a bilateral basis.
In the recent years, China has developed its relationship with the African Union politically, economically and even militarily. The relationship has been further institutionalised through the China-AU Strategic Dialogue, participation of the African Union Commission in the FOCAC alongside individual African countries and the establishment of Chinese Permanent Mission to the AU. China has also expressed support for plans to establish an AU Representational Office in Beijing. This shows that the Asian country is trying to move closer to the AU and move beyond the bilateral mechanisms which it traditionally prefers. The Chinese diplomacy usually relies heavily on government-to-government ties but the recent trends have marked a slight departure from this.
The symbolic construction and financing of the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa depicts the importance China levies to this relationship. It was later reported that China used its involvement in the construction to “bug” the building. Recently, it also built the Integrated Service Project in the AU headquarters in Ethiopia.
Its approach towards the continental organisation is mainly driven by security interests while the bilateral relations are mostly economic in nature. The security interests are vital in securing China’s economic activities on the continent and so far, it has mostly worked with the AU Peace and Security Council on maintaining peace and security on the continent. A section in the White Paper on China’s Africa Policy 2015 delineates its relations with regional organisations mentioning “development planning, experience sharing in poverty reduction, health, peace and security and international affairs” as areas where China seeks cooperation with the AU. In 2015, Xi Jinping announced in a UN speech titled, “China is Here for Peace”, that the country would disburse US$100m to the AU to build its standby force and rapid response capacity.
In April 2016, China also conducted the Human Rights Dialogue with the AU at the AU headquarters in Ethiopia which was expressed as a platform for sharing experiences and best practices in the area of the promotion and protection of human and peoples’ rights. The dialogue sought to share experiences on issues related to Democratic Principles and the Rule of law in Africa and in China and enhance coordination on human rights issues in international organisations and multilateral fora, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council. This can be looked at against the background that the African people celebrated 2016 as the Year of Human Rights in Africa with Special Focus on the Rights of Women.
In 2018, the 7th China-AU Strategic Dialogue took place in Beijing between the AU Commission Chairman, Moussa Faki Mahamat and Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, where China iterated that it would cooperate with the AU in various fields, including transnational and transregional infrastructure construction, peace and security, public health, tourism and aviation. The dialogue supported the establishment of a representative office of the AU in China and advanced the integration between the AU 2063 agenda and the 10 major China-Africa cooperation plans proposed by Xi Jinping in 2015. Overall, the dialogue sought to work together to intensify coordination in international and regional affairs, as well as promote peace and development in China, Africa and the developing world.
While China is increasing its economic, political and military cooperation with the AU, it is also actively seeking participation in the African Regional Economic Communities such as the South African Development Community, East African Community and Economic Community of West African States. Similar to building a headquarters for the AU, China has also built headquarters for ECOWAS in Nigeria, a 32$m grant to finance the regional headquarters. Its increased cooperation with the regional and continental actors enhances overall cooperation with Africa as a whole and the regional engagements, in particular, are necessary to overcome the institutional challenges that bilateral and continental approaches face. The regional cooperation can provide better political leverage in securing investments in the region and promote economic development.
Africa accounts for more than a quarter of the member states in the UN, and these engagements help China to win political allies. China, being a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a seat that it obtained through massive African support in 1971, also supports African regional organisations and their voices at the UNSC on matters pertaining to peace and security and insists the Council to pay heed to their voices. Conversely, it has also been noted that at various instances, African countries also support Chinese interests by choosing to remain silent on sensitive issues such as Xinjiang and Tibet.
There are also speculations about the AU’s funding. As the continental body is dependent on both member states and external partners for funding, however, receiving funds from external partners can put its autonomy in question.
With continued efforts in strengthening its position in this web of regional and continental actors in Africa, China is building strategic influence in the region. This influence has tremendous advantage for China in the international organisations, where the support of these political allies help China in securing its national interests and gaining clout that in turn shapes China’s relations with great powers.
- Onoja, a foreign affairs analyst, wrote in from Abuja
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