China and Africa have a long history of friendly relations, stretching from the days when Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) navigator Zheng He visited the East African coast three times. Since 1949, when the People's Republic of China was founded, and throughout the period when many African countries were gaining their independence, the friendly and cooperative relationship has entered a new stage of development.
The common tasks and issues facing both China and African countries, after they had gained national liberation and independence, have been to develop their national economies to realize modernization; maintain state sovereignty and territory integrity and oppose imperialism, colonialism, racism and hegemonism; safeguard world peace by opposing any attempts by the big powers to rule the world and engage in power politics; develop friendly and cooperative relations with the entire third world, strengthen South-South cooperation and establish a new world political and economic order. The common tasks and stands shared by China and African countries have formed a solid foundation in establishing, developing and consolidating the friendly cooperative relations, and coordinating mutual positions in international affairs and supporting each other.
Since 1949, it has been an important part of Chinese foreign policy to establish and develop friendly relations with African countries. On May 30, 1956, China established diplomatic relations with Egypt, starting the trend that has seen formal ties created with 51 African countries, of which 45 have been maintained ever since.
Between March 1957, when the first Chinese delegation visited Africa, and 1999, Chinese leaders ranked at State councilor and above have visited over 40 African countries. Two Chinese presidents and one vice president have paid state visits to nine African countries and three premiers have visited over 30 African countries. In the same period, more than 80 state leaders from over 50 African countries have paid 120-plus visits to China, including over 30 government heads.
From the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, the national independence movement in Africa continued to gather momentum. The Chinese government unequivocally supports the African people in their just cause of winning national independence, opposing foreign interference and maintaining state sovereignty, which has in turn won their trust and friendship. Premier Zhou Enlai visited 10 African countries at the end of 1963 to the beginning of 1964, a milestone in Sino-African relations. Many African countries established diplomatic relations with China in the wake of his tour.
In the 1970s, China restored its legal status in the United Nations, and became even firmer in its support for the African people against imperialism, colonialism and hegemonism. A total of 24 African countries established diplomatic relations with China in the period.
Entering the 1980s, China initiated a policy of reform and opening to the outside world, and attached great importance to developing friendly relations with African countries. At the end of 1982 and the beginning of 1983, Chinese leaders, during their visit to 11 African countries, put forward the four principles of "mutual benefit, emphasis on efficiency, multiple channels and common development" in developing the economic and technological cooperation which were well received. Sino-African trade and economic cooperation has achieved a new outlook ever since.
The international situation underwent drastic changes in the 1990s. To strengthen Sino-African friendly relations, Chinese President Yang Shangkun proposed six principles during his visit to the region in 1992: China supports all endeavors of African countries in maintaining state sovereignty, national independence, opposing foreign interference and developing the national economy; China respects the African countries’ right to choose their own political system and development road in accordance with their own national characteristics; China supports African countries in their endeavors to strengthen unity, cooperation and alliance, and solve state-to-state conflicts through negotiations; China supports the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in its efforts to seek peace, stability and development and realize a vibrant economic community; China supports the African countries in their efforts to positively participate in world affairs and establish a just and rational international political and economic new order as members of equal status; and China will continue to develop friendly exchanges and various types of economic cooperation with African countries based on the five principles of peaceful co-existence. These are the basic principles for developing Sino-African relations under the new situation.
In 1995, Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji visited the region respectively, further promoting the development of Sino-African relations. During his visit in 1996, Jiang Zemin put forward five proposals on establishing long-term stable and all-field cooperative Sino-African relations in the 21st century, with the core being "sincere and friendly, equal treatment, unity and cooperation, common development and encountering the future."
The five proposals fully explain China's strategies of developing friendly and cooperative relations. Four years later President Jiang Zemin paid another visit to the region, and when he visited South Africa, he reiterated that China had constantly attached great importance to Africa, and it was an important part of the independent foreign policy of China to develop unity and cooperation with the broad mass of developing countries, including those in Africa.
To express the common aspirations of the Chinese and African peoples for peace, the marine fleet of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) paid a friendly visit to Tanzania between July 28-29, 2000, the first such visit since 1949. This visit strengthened the long-term friendly relations with African countries.
For the past 50 years, the governments and people of China and Africa have conducted fruitful cooperation in politics, trade and economy, public health, culture and education. In 1971, China restored its legal status in the United Nations with staunch African support. The African countries that have established diplomatic relations with China have unequivocally insisted on the one-China policy for many years, giving great support to the just cause of the Chinese people to obtain unity.
In the economic field, China began to provide aid to Africa from 1956. So far, it has provided aid to 53 African countries. Nearly 800 projects in the social, economic and other fields have been completed as a result, of which the Tanzania-Zambia railway is a good example. Since 1986, the Chinese government has provided multilateral aid to 42 African countries and trained more than 660 technicians for them. In 1995, China reformed its foreign-aid policy, which was well received by African countries.
China has established trade and economic relations with over 50 African countries, and the trade, investment, economic and technological cooperation, as well as well labor services, and have made fruitful progress. Chinese companies have set up over 150 trade centers and agencies, over 200 branch companies and distribution centers in Africa. The trade volume between China and Africa has increased from US$2.64 billion in 1994 to US$6.48 billion in 1999. Chinese enterprises invested a total of US$130 million in Africa in 1999. During the first quarter of 2000, bilateral trade volume reached US$2.218 billion, up 71.7 percent over the same period of the previous year.
Trade and economic cooperation have made much headway in recent years, contributing a great deal to the fast and overall development of relations. Sino-African trade and economic cooperation are in many respects complimentary, and have great potential to tap into a broad range of industrial sectors. This now needs further common efforts to take various measures to greatly promote trade, investment and technological transfers so that the quality and standard of bilateral trade can reach an even higher level.
In June 2000, the Chinese government has successfully organized four advanced classes for China-Africa economic management officials, which have offered a chance for Chinese and African officials to exchange experiences and increase mutual understanding, and have played an active role in introducing the economic development in China since reform and opening up and its successful experiences.
Between 1963 and 1999, China has dispatched medical teams to over 40 African countries with a total of 16,000 participants, curing 300 million patients.
To further promote Sino-African talks and cooperation under the new situation, the Chinese government, in response to proposals of some African countries, has proposed to hold a "Sino-African Forum on Cooperation-2000 Beijing Ministerial Conference" between October 10-12 in Beijing. This will provide an opportunity for high level exchanges on promoting the establishment of a just and rational international political and economic new order and strengthening Sino-African cooperation in the trade, economic and other fields, through the principle of peaceful negotiation, increasing understanding, expanding common knowledge, strengthening friendship and promoting cooperation.
This is the first time in the history of Sino-African relations, to hold such conference. It is hoped that it will become a major strategy for the Chinese government to consolidate and strengthen Sino-African friendly and cooperative relations at the beginning of the new millennium. The coming conference will be a major milestone in expanding the overall friendly and cooperative relations toward the 21st century between China and Africa, and will greatly promote the bilateral political, economic and trade and cultural cooperation.
(The author is a senior research fellow with the West-Asia and Africa Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)