China has received a bad rap recently for its environmental exploitation in developing countries. The media asserts that three decades after the intensification of its international forays, China is still struggling to strike a balance between the protection of the environment and its rapid investments, particularly in Africa.
The continent's resource affluence has attracted global economic powerhouses such as the fast-industrializing China, the US, Brazil, India and Europe.
China's increasing appetite for resources has particularly raised concerns on the sustainability of resource exploitation and the impact on the environment.
The country's presence is dominant in energy, mining and construction. A recent summit on China-Africa cooperation saw commitments further expanded to Africa's agriculture, a move that could weaken India's presence in the sector.
As a matter of fact, Sino-African ties have been growing with the 2012 volume of trade hitting $198.5 billion. This is roughly $90 billion more than between Africa and the US.
The accelerating Asian trade and investment hold critical promise for Africa's growth. But this can only be met if more conducive policy reforms are pursued.
China has multiple and fast modernizing industries. It also has a swelling population whose purchasing power is rising. This is why there is a big surge in demand for oil, agricultural products, processed commodities, light manufactured goods and food products.
Moreover, the increasing population has put pressure on the country's coal deposits as they are now facing a shortage of close to 300 million tons. Indeed, this explains why China is courting Africa.
But Africa's contaminated history of resource exploitation by the West, coupled with Beijing's lack of environmental framework, has led to the calls for China not to be entertained on the African soil. Such sentiments have already surfaced in Zambia where China's stakes are high in the mining industry.
Environmentalists say Beijing has failed to adhere to basic safeguards in regards to nature. They hold that the gradually globalizing world means environmental issues should no longer be confined within national borders. While Africa yearns for development and poverty eradication, this cannot come at the expense of its natural resources.
Faced with these criticisms that threaten its interests in Africa, China has come up with a plan aimed at protecting the environment. The "Guidelines for Environmental Protection in Foreign Investment and Cooperation" seeks to hold Chinese firms responsible for their environmental and social impacts overseas. It covers legal compliance, environmental policies, environmental management policies, mitigation measures, disaster management plans, waste management as well as international standards.
Although the document provides some hope for Africa, it is unfortunate that it is nonbinding. Firms can therefore flout the guidelines without facing any serious penalties. This still puts Africa's future in a quagmire.
For example, it dims the prospects of the thousands of families whose livelihoods are being threatened by the construction of a huge dam in Lake Turkana.
For close to three years, these poor people have petitioned the Chinese government to stop the construction of the power plant, known as Gibe III, on the argument that the project will affect water levels of the lake. There has been little response to their appeal.
Africa's forests have not been spared either. Chinese-backed entities operate as loggers and timber consumers in Gabon, Ghana and Republic of Congo and Cameroon. In Mozambique, about 90 percent of timber exports go to China while in the Democratic Republic of Congo approximately 4 million cubic meters of timber are sold informally to China.
Chances are remote that the new guidelines will start working immediately. But the move creates a window of opportunity for Africa and China to deliberate more on how best to protect their interests.
Isolationism will only weaken Africa. It will even be worse if some nations come up with anti-Chinese sentiments and think of severing ties with China.
Africa's leadership should engage more with China to strengthen the new guidelines.
The author is a journalist on African issues based in Nairobi, Kenya. firstname.lastname@example.org