Padraig Carmody is an Associate Professor of Human Geography at Trinity College Dublin and author of the recently-released book The Rise of the BRICS in Africa: The Geopolitics of South-South Relations. Shanghaiist spoke to him about China in Africa, how the Chinese model is reshaping globalization and how that might affect the rest of world.
What separates China from the other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries in terms of involvement in Africa?
There are a couple of things that separates China from the other countries. The first one is the scale of engagement. China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, with about 200 billion dollars of bilateral trade per year. It’s projected that India will come up to around a 100 billion in the next year or two, so quite far behind. China is Africa’s single biggest foreign investor in terms of new investment as well. And then there’s the scale of migration. It’s estimated that there are about a million Chinese citizens living in Africa.
And the way in which China engages in Africa is quite distinctive, for a couple of reasons. China has foreign exchange reserves of about, or over 3 trillion dollars now, which is the biggest foreign exchange reserve in the world. That means a lot more money can be brought to bear; in terms of infrastructure projects, in terms of building new stadia, in terms of helping building new presidential palaces, or other public diplomacy initiatives. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and that gives it certain kinds of diplomatic advantages in its dealings with African countries as well. So the way I’ll characterize it is saying that China brings a full spectrum approach to its relation with Africa. It’s not just about economics, it’s not just about politics, it’s not just about overseas development assistance. There’s a full spectrum of issues and China engages most African countries on them. The other BRICS powers simply don’t have the power, or the money to do so.
The other way that the engagement is distinctive is that many of the biggest Chinese companies in Africa are state-owned or partially state-owned enterprises. That gives them a different character from a lot of the other BRICS companies operating in Africa, which tend to be privately owned. The fact that the major Chinese operations there are state-owned means that they are often quite attuned to what the Chinese central state or provincial state in China wants, so that gives the character of the engagement a different flavour.
These state-owned enterprises tie in to the idea of what you call the respatialization of the state in the book. Can you give a quick summary about what you mean by that?
Sure. What I’m trying to say there is that the Western model of globalization is that the state is meant to get out of the way, reduce tariff barriers, and the private sector should drive the economy. The Chinese model is different. The economic development model originally pursued in China is different. What I’m trying to get at with that idea of the respatialization of state power is that even as the Chinese government has been in the process of liberalizing its economy domestically, it’s also sending the state-owned corporations overseas; to look for new resources, to look for new markets, to pair up with other companies and develop new innovations. So what’s happening is rather than just a reduction of state power as in the the Western globalization model, where the state kind of gets out of the business of economic development, what we’re seeing in China is this respatialization of state power where the state is able to project its power. It projects its power through these state-owned enterprises overseas and through the special economic zones and other initiatives around the world and in Africa in particular.
Is this changing the nature of globalization, or how people expect globalization to happen?
Yes, so one of the arguments I try to develop in the book is that there was this idea of the geography of nowhere. That everywhere was getting McDonalds, everywhere was getting Marks and Spencer and becoming the same under globalization. What I’m trying to argue in the book that this has in fact not been the case. That what we’re seeing is this process of translocalization, where you have labour coming from say, the Philippines and capital coming from Brazil into Mozambique and the combination of those factors of production and people from different places gives localities a distinctive character, rather then globalization being this homogenizing force that necessarily controls over everywhere and makes everywhere the same. We’re seeing a process of differentiation, even as the world becomes more intertwined and interwoven.
So in terms of the rest of the world, do you think China will take the state-owned enterprises to other regions as well?
Yes, it’s already doing that. Asia has become important as an export market, or rather more important as Europe and the United States have declined, partly on foot of the impacts of the global financial crisis. Chinese state-owned corporations and enterprises are investing in Latin America, they’re investing in Europe and the US.
Sometimes they face more resistance there. There was a famous case in 2005 where one of the state owned Chinese oil companies wanted to buy up Unocal, which was an oil company based in California in the US. But it was blocked by the US Congress. And people have said this was one of the reasons why Chinese oil companies became more focused on Africa, in particular to access oil. There is perhaps some resistance in Europe and the US to some Chinese investments that isn’t experienced in other places around the world.
The Rise of the BRICS in Africa: The Geopolitics of South-South Relations is out now.
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by Marianne Mandujano