Concerns over China's increasing economic involvement in Africa have been overblown, Kenyan Ambassador to the United Nations Macharia Kamau argued in an address February 26 in Myron Taylor Hall.
"We've had experience with excursions by other parts of the world: the Portuguese in the 14th century, the Arabs, Europeans in the 19th century, and the Americans in the 20th century," Kamau explained. "Why is it so peculiar that China is in Africa?"
Kamau was the keynote speaker at the Cornell International Law Journal 2015 Symposium: "The Journey to Invest: China's Economic Excursion into Africa."
The ambassador spoke at length about how China's involvement in Africa is often misrepresented in the media as little more than an exploitative enterprise to extract oil and other natural resources.
"If you look at other countries … particularly the European countries, they have been doing equally exploitative adventures in Africa, but without the commensurate benefits," he said. "Africa remains to this day the poorest, most exploited, most beaten-down continent on Earth. That is why Africa has embraced the Chinese opportunity."
Contrary to the media portrayals and reactions, "Africa is not China's priority," Kamau argued. He stated that only 3 percent of Chinese foreign direct investment goes to Africa, and only 4 percent of its trade goes to Africa. Yet around $25 billion, or 47 percent of China's investment on the continent, has been for "development assistance." In comparison, the total developmental assistance investment in Africa from the rest of the world is about $90 billion.
"Not only is China seeking raw materials, but they are also putting their money into manufacturing, infrastructure and construction," Kamau said. "In reality, we now see that China has come into Africa and it is having a huge transformative impact on the continent." This is because of its ability to affect issues relating to economic growth: investing in education, fighting poverty and combating disease, he said. "The terms of engagement [with China] have been amazingly generous."
Nevertheless, the ambassador emphasized that "China is not doing this out of pure philanthropy," as 58 percent of its investment has been targeted at six countries, all with huge resource opportunities.
While China's foreign policy strategy is driven by its agenda, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, Kamau said. China, he said, is out to make friends in the global community by strategically supplying aid, fostering development and extending trade opportunities to achieve its national goals and further its interests. "There isn't a superpower in history that hasn't done that," the ambassador said. "Why wouldn't China?"
Kamau explained that membership on the United Nations Security Council is considered a significant indication of a country's position in the global political economy. There are five member nations on the Security Council: the United Kingdom, France, Russia, the United States and China.
"France and the U.K. were just overtaken by Brazil in terms of purchasing power - why [isn't Brazil] on the Security Council?" he asked. "India has over 800 million people, for the second largest population after China, and a booming economy; why not them? We are stuck in 1945."
The ambassador suggested that China's excursion into Africa represents how established economic and political global relationships are shifting.
"The question is, are you going to be on top of it in ways where you can drive that change fundamentally," he said.
The symposium itself, which was held on February 27, saw legal scholars and lawyers from the United States, China, South Africa, Belgium, Ireland, and Germany give talks on China's diverse investments in Africa and the relationship between the two regions. The talks were organized into four panels, which were moderated by Cornell Law School professors:
- Environmental Impacts on Investment, moderated by Odette Lienau, associate professor of law
- Bilateral Investment Treaties, moderated by Muna Ndulo, professor of law and director of the Institute for African Development
- Governance Structures and Institutional Effectiveness, moderated by Aziz Rana, associate professor of law
- Tensions Surrounding the Investment, moderated by Sital Kalantry, clinical professor of law
The symposium was organized by Nora Ali '15, editor in chief; Alexander Lee '15, executive editor; Ebony Ray '15, symposium editor; and Michelle Willensky '15, symposium editor. Event cosponsors included the Cornell Law School Berger International Studies program and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly.
-This article, which originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle, was written by Robert Johnson '17, a student intern.