China acquiesced to European intervention in Côte d’Ivoire and co-operated on Sudan. But it maintains friendly relations with dictators.
Europeans want Chinese co-operation to limit the arms trade, support good governance in Africa and apply conditionality to development aid. China’s approach to Africa is a mixture of entrepreneurialism, state relations and public diplomacy, and it has generally shown little regard for democratic values. But China’s need for stability to protect its investments may create a new opportunity for co-operation. A decade of unfettered Chinese business expansion is over.
At the end of March, China supported a UNSC resolution that mandated the use of force by UN and French forces to protect civilians in Côte d’Ivoire from attacks by government troops. This was a big success for the EU in its attempt through the UN to uphold the results of the elections in 2010 in which President Laurent Gbagbo was voted out of office. The crisis showed that, in the right circumstances, China, an authoritarian state, could be persuaded to support international action to safeguard democracy. China showed similar pragmatism by sending election observers to monitor the referendum in South Sudan, where China’s own oil and commercial interests mean it has a stake in conflict management. China also acknowledged its growing role as donor in a white paper on aid policy and signed a declaration on improving aid efficiency at the international Busan summit in November.
However, this does not mean that China has cut its ties with dictators. Xi Jinping, China’s designated leader, hosted Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe in Beijing in November. It also allowed Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir to visit Beijing in June despite an arrest warrant from the ICJ, which China does not recognise. China may be gradually realising that, in order to ensure long-term access to resources in Africa, it has to reach out beyond dictators. But this is a shift that is being driven largely by pragmatism rather than Western pressure. So although Europeans were relatively united, they had a limited impact on China’s evolving approach to Africa.