On Africa’s earliest interaction and trade with China, Philip Snow in The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa had the following to say:
A Star Raft was an expedition which carried to the exotic lands the star-like radiance of an imperial ambassador, and the object of its voyage was to win for the emperor the allegiance of distant peoples. The exchange of goods was laden in Chinese eyes with a symbolic significance far outweighing the value of the goods themselves. By trading with the fleet, the African coastal states were paying the Ming emperor the homage they owed him as the sovereign of the world (p. 27).The quotes above are some of my favorite from Snow’s now dated but still relevant tome on early Chinese interaction with Africa. In many ways his observations can be reframed to represent aspect of current permutations of Sino-African relations in today’s increasingly multi-polar world. For instance, Chinese insistence on African acceptance of the One China Policy as the foundation for diplomatic relations is a symbolic acquiescence to the People’s Republic of China’s communist party’s government’s value for sovereignty. Similarly, Chinese courtship and respect, for economically weak and culturally different African states have won them favor and political support in the international political arena. Although early Chinese relations with African freedom fighting efforts sought to support and promote a socialist/communist agenda, recently the Chinese have not urged African states to adhere to any particular political convictions. But it is naive to believe that the Chinese are not following an economic or political agenda in Africa. Just as the Star Rafts brought glory and prestige to the Emperor, Chinese engagement in Africa is in pursuit of domestic Chinese objectives; much like everyone else is in Africa to pursue their own objectives.
How different all the same these Chinese visitors were from the Europeans who arrived in Africa seventy years later. Travelling in thousands, armed to the teeth, the Chinese were not aggressive. Unlike the Portuguese they stormed no cities and conquered no land. Even if the sixteenth-century novelist was right to describe an initial conflict, he also makes it clear that the Chinese were tactful, anxious to avoid disturbing the small coastal states any more than was necessary to achieve their basic ends. Unlike the Portuguese they refrained from plunder. Instead they coaxed the coastal rulers into trading by presenting them with gifts of coloured silk. They did not burn, as the Portuguese would, with the urge to impose their religious convictions, to lay siege to African souls. All they sought from Africans was a gesture of symbolic acquiescence in the Chinese view of the world. Mogadishu and Brava, for their part, were happy enough with the relationship to send their envoys to Peking three further times while the Chinese Columbus was on the seas. The Chinese accepted, because the Chinese treated a weak and strange people with courtesy and restraint (p.29).
The soft approach is also no longer unique to the Chinese as the US, the UK, and Germany are taking a page out of their playbook and reinforcing their diplomatic relations with African states. In today’s world of multi-polarity and increasing options, despite the retention of the US’s hegemonic influence, the use of soft power is at times more effective than the use of hard power. Easy access to information has increased the value of critical discourse. I would argue that there is a need to push this discourse and to continue to examine foreign policy successes and failures for African states engaging with external actors and the reverse to flesh out best practices and reduce redundancy and ineffectiveness.
Easier said than done.