By S. Idowu Ola
The year 2007 started on a very promising note for China-Africa cooperation. Just before the start of the new year, a wide-body Airbus A330 left Capital International Airport in Beijing for Muritala Muhammed Airport in Lagos, Nigeria.
It was the start of direct flights between China and Africa, a significant step in the 50-year China-Africa bilateral relationship.
The China Southern Airlines, now operates three flights a week between Beijing and Lagos, with a brief stopover in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The other operational direct routes between Africa and China are Addis Ababa-Beijing by Ethiopian Airlines and Johannesburg-Beijing by South African Airways.
I remember encouraging a colleague to seek academic work in China. She quickly brushed the idea aside on the basis of long hours of stopovers and flight changes from Lagos to Beijing. The new direct flight not only saves time but is economical.
This week, President Hu Jintao is in Africa for state visits to Cameroon, Liberia, Sudan, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and Seychelles.
His visit is expected to lead to more bilateral talks and agreements and yield more concrete projects to fulfill the eight measures he spelled out in his address to the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in November.
Last year, President Hu used his state visits to Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya to consolidate China's five-point African policy of sincere friendship, equality, solidarity and cooperation, common development and being forward looking.
China has indeed been faithful to this policy since 1996. The Chinese government has been providing African countries with loans with government subsidized interest to encourage Chinese enterprises to cooperate with African enterprises in foreign aid projects with joint equity.
During the first FOCAC in 2000, China announced that it was planning to reduce or cancel debts amounting to 10 billion yuan (US$1.3 billion) owed by the heavily indebted poor and least developed African countries over the next two years.
China also announced plans to establish an African Human Resources Development Fund to help African countries train more professionals in different disciplines.
Many of these packages were renewed during the Third Beijing Summit of FOCAC attended by 48 African heads of state or their deputies. A new type of strategic partnership between China and Africa was also announced at the summit. It is to be based on "political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchanges".
In return for these Chinese government commitments to Africa, China has been drawing on Africa's natural resources and markets as well as cooperation in international affairs.
In 2005 two-way trade between China and Africa amounted to about US$40 billion, an increase of about 400 percent over that of 2000. Africa's resources and market potential coupled with Chinese know-how have helped the modernization of both China and Africa.
Almost all African presidents and prime ministers have visited China in the last 10 years and many top-level Chinese delegations have reciprocated. More than 800 Chinese-funded companies currently operate in Africa with a total direct investment of more than US$1 billion, according to China's official record.
The potential for further development of China-Africa relations in 2007 and beyond is even greater. The new China Southern flights between Beijing and Lagos will not only help the several thousand Chinese working in West Africa and West African businessmen flying to China but also diplomats, sportspeople, journalists, students, academics and tourists. According to a Chinese analyst, "the route may not prove profitable in the short term, but will be significant for exploring the market".
As a further step to direct air links, the Chinese government or corporations should also open Chinese language and cultural centers in strategic African cities. This will facilitate the growth of African connections with Chinese culture and markets.
During the second Conference of Chinese and African Entrepreneurs as part of the third FOCAC meeting, Africans welcomed China's advances in enhancing trade.
It is now left to the two to actualize their dreams. In particular African entrepreneurs should make use of the Chinese government's promises to open up its market to investment. A healthy sustainable relationship should not be based on export and import alone. Africans should be able to offer services to Chinese on Chinese soil as many Chinese entrepreneurs are presently doing in Africa.
The eight-nation tour of Africa by President Hu is expected to bring with it many more fruitful bilateral talks and agreements.
African governments have opened their doors widely to Chinese investors mainly on the basis of trust and hope. They expect their relationship to be mutually beneficial in both the short and long term, unlike Africa's relationship with the West.
Chinese involvement, especially in troubled areas of Africa, should not only be seen as transparent but should help ensure peace on the continent.
In Nigeria and other parts of Africa there is growing concern about many fake products coming from China and cases of dumping. Africa needs firm commitments from China to attack and stop this menace.
One also expects that in the long run the several hundred Chinese companies now operating in Africa will transfer their technical and managerial skills to African workers to enable them to take over the industries completely. This will ensure the credibility of China, strengthen cooperation, and enable China to move to greater heights and responsibilities.
For Sino-Afro relations the hopes are high and the potential huge.
S. Idowu Ola is a faculty member of agriculture with Department of Animal Science, Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria.
(China Daily January 30, 2007)