One of the most talked about issues in the international development and commerce circles today is the rising role of China in Africa. With China and African countries announcing ever increasing areas of cooperation while consolidating engagements already in place, the West has been forced back to the drawing board.
The question being asked in Western capitals is "Why and how has China overtaken us as the most preferred economic partner in Africa?"
China overtook the US as the most important trading partner with Africa in 2009, nine years after the launch of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation, the main engine of the growing ties.
From a situation where countries such as the US whined and pined about "China's neo-colonialism" in Africa, there are strong indications that the concerns of Western countries are about to be addressed through policy shifts.
Last week for instance, the US Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs held sessions aimed at evolving new strategies to stem the tide of Chinese cooperation with Africa across diplomacy, aid, trade, investments and infrastructure contracts. In all likelihood, the US senate and congress will soon come up with new legislation on Africa in the face of China's successes.
To a great extent, the West has itself to blame for ceding it's preeminence in Africa. While the West has always tied its relations with Africa to hegemonic yardsticks such as human rights and democracy, China operates a governance-neutral approach based on the principles of sovereignty and non-interference.
With time, China has therefore provided an alternative for the 54 African countries fed up with the West's patronizing approach. Moreover, a good number of African countries rely on China's veto at the UN in line with developing nation solidarity whenever they run afoul of Western conceptions of governance.
While the Chinese approach in Africa is continent-wide and undiscriminating, Western countries are much more selective along "friend versus enemy" dichotomies. Shunned by the West, "pariah" states such as Zimbabwe and Sudan have had no qualms looking east.
Symbolically, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe visited China last week, whereas he is banned from travelling to Western capitals. Similarly, Sudan's Omar al Bashir, who is persona non grata in the West, was a state guest in Beijing in June.
Many other African leaders have been lining up annually for official visits to China as Beijing becomes the destination of choice for leaders intent on securing investment capital. This is a dramatic reversal from the situation from the 1990s and 1980s when Western capitals were a must-visit for African leaders.
The high level contacts between China and Africa are mutual. For instance, Chinese President Hu Jintao has made a record six trips to Africa over the last 10 years where both former president George Bush and his successor Barrack Obama have made only one visit each in the same period. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has been to Africa on numerous occasions.
In comparison, few European leaders ever visit Africa and vice versa. The high level contacts between China and Africa underline the importance attached to the socioeconomic ties between the two regions.
The main approach to Chinese economic cooperation with Africa is subsidized loans with interest rates as low as 2 to 3 percent paid over 20 years and more. On the whole, Chinese development assistance and contractual deals with Africa are long term, showing that China is taking a future-orientated approach to Africa's development. The opposite is true for most Western ventures in Africa.
Today many infrastructure projects are springing up in Africa; a copper mine in Democratic Republic of Congo, oil refineries in Angola, Chad and Niger, a hospital in Kenya and an aluminium factory in Ghana, to mention a few. Across the continent, Chinese capital and expertise are delivering roads, bridges, railways, power plants, telecommunications literally opening up and lighting up the continent. Clearly China is Africa's friend in need.
Besides geopolitical factors, Chinese firms simply offer competitive bids compared to their Western counterparts. Will the new policies from the US and Europe match China's value proposition to Africa?
The author is a Kenyan journalist studying international communication at the Communication University of China, firstname.lastname@example.org