China’s growing engagement in Africa: implications for Italy-Ethiopia relations

T.note n.9

China’s growing engagement in the African continent has been portrayed as one of the biggest international controversies of contem- porary international relations. At a time when Africa has become the centre of a new powerful economic imaginary and is increasingly considered a “must-go” land of opportunities by many Western countries, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been repeatedly described as “scrambling for African resources”, seeking to access new markets while building its political reputation, as analysed by Bräutigam in The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (2009).

Official Chinese data confirm the PRC’s growing engagement in Africa. Taken with due caution, Beijing’s official statistics indicate that for the years 2005 and 2014, Chinese FDI flows to Africa amounted, to USD 0.39 and 3.2 billion respectively, while FDI stock was equivalent to USD 1.6 and 32.35 billion. In 2014, the total trade volume between China-Africa reached a value of USD 222 billion USD, while it had merely reached the value of USD 40 billion in 2005. These results confirmed China’s increasingly important role as Africa’s largest trading partner. Furthermore, foreign aid has matched 3.2 billion USD in 2013, over three times higher than 2005. Yet, as anticipated, statistics are often contested and problematic per se, reflecting a political struggle at both global and regional level, with Africa being one of the battlefields. Indeed, geopolitics brings to the fore territorial considerations, alongside those about power and the actors involved. In this respect, China has played a key role in Africa’s rise, either by investing in resource-dri- ven and non resource-driven countries; in so doing, it has put into question the effectiveness of Western engagement strategies and the legacy of their historical ties to the continent – last remnants of the West’s colonial past.

This seems to be the case, for example, of Ethiopia, a former Italian colony located in the politically precarious Horn of Africa. Beijing has proved to be a key partner of Addis Abeba, and has shown
its commitment in
supporting Ethiopia’s
run toward becoming
a “middle-income
country” by 2025. At
present, Ethiopia is
one of the five
fastest growing
economies in the
world, and its
development efforts have been highly praised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2015. Suffering from (and denouncing) limited financial and institutional support to internationalization by Italy, unlike their Chinese counterparts, Italian entrepreneurs are regarded and regard themselves as relevant and historical economic players, somebody – to quote an Ethiopian official – “to learn from” and “with whom the Ethiopians share traditions and rituals”. Indeed, “Ethiopian families eat pasta,” exclaimed an Ethiopian public official during the Ethiopian Business Week, a summit held in May 2014 in Turin (Italy) aiming to foster Italian-Ethiopian economic cooperation.

Granted that Italy, with its limited resources and global outreach, can’t really compete with China in the region, what it can do is to enhance its political-economic leverage on Addis Abeba. For instance, the limited technology transfer (particularly in the agricultural sector) or the relocation of small scale firms in various sectors including clothing and footwear, could possibly leave space for Italy to increase its engagement by fostering the role of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the industrialization process of Ethiopia. Indeed, over the years there has been a much more consistent engagement of Italy’s economic system in the expansive growth dynamics experienced by Ethiopia’s economy. However, a gap between ambitions, priorities and motivations has been revealed, being a sort of constitutive uncertainty inherited from Italy’s colonial history that seems to be brutally coming back and conditioning its current foreign projection in Ethiopia and abroad.

To clarify Italy’s role toward new players, on the one hand it might be helpful to acknowledge that the PRC is indeed in Africa, and it is not going to leave any time soon. At the same time, it would be essential for Italy to critically problematise China’s “presence”, to politically elaborate on the issue, and build on the inherent differences that exist between Italy’s and China’s engagement with Ethiopia. This would be a relevant move for Italy, especially at a time when the alarmingly widespread leitmotiv of “China is not doing anything in Africa that Western countries did not once do” is a disturbing argument to use by anybody. At the same time, an equally alarming fact is that Africa is still presented as an undifferentiated set of countries with no agency over its own future, awaiting “courtship and penetration” by others as Stephen Chan argues in his compelling account of Sino-African relations in The Morality of China in Africa (2012). In this sense, there is an unsettling colonial attitude that needs to be taken seriously in our post-colonial times.

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