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Trilateral cooperation not the panacea to ‘China in Africa’

Sarah Hardus | 28 February 2013

In 2010 Wikileaks published several US embassy cables on China’s increasing involvement in Africa. The documents demonstrate the popularity of China’s focus on infrastructure as well as its ‘no strings attached’ approach. In light of the current discussion on trilateral cooperation one cable deserves a closer look. 

In 2010 Wikileaks published several US embassy cables on China’s increasing involvement in Africa. The documents demonstrate the popularity of China’s focus on infrastructure as well as its ‘no strings attached’ approach. In light of the current discussion on trilateral cooperation one cable deserves a closer look. 

In November last year the UK launched the ‘China-Britain Cooperation Project of Accelerating Agri-technology Transfer to Low-income Countries’.This project was the latest in a series of tripartite projects initiated by the so-called ‘traditional donors’. Trilateral cooperation is rapidly becoming the most popular response to the challenges created by China’s re-emergence in Africa. As Deborah Brautigam, author of ‘The Dragon’s Gift’, states: ‘Every few months, I have another meeting with a donor agency or an NGO that is interested in developing joint activities with China, in Africa’

According to Sven Grimm, Director of the Centre for Chinese Studies, donors hope that tripartite projects will help to ‘socialize’ emerging economies into international norms, find complementarity in cooperation, and exploit the potential for mutual learning. Grimm also points out that trilateral arrangements are only realistic when they take into account the self-interest of all actors involved. 

This is where the Wikileaks cable becomes interesting. Already in 2010, the cable clearly showed Africa’s lack of interest in trilateral cooperation. Kenyan Ambassador to China, Julius Ole Sunkuli, said Africa had nothing to gain from China cooperating with the international donor community. He claimed that Africa benefits from China’s practical, bilateral approach to development assistance and he would not like to see China change its way because of ‘western’ interference. The cable also cites South African Minister Plenipotentiary Dave Malcolmson, who says African countries perceive initiatives for trilateral cooperation as a western attempt to influence China’s assistance to Africa. China has always been very clear that its willingness to cooperate with the traditional donor community in Africa depends on Africa’s consent. Looking at the statements cited above, Africa is unlikely to push for trilateral projects.

In spite of this lack of African support, traditional donors have managed to get several projects of the ground. However, the projects that have gotten the approval of the three parties involved are all small-scale projects at a very technical level. To cite the example of DFID-China cooperation; this project will facilitate the transfer of agricultural technology to Uganda and Malawi. One wonders whether projects like these will help to achieve the ambitious goals that motivated trilateral cooperation in the first place.

While trilateral cooperation will do no harm and is likely to result in interesting lessons for all parties involved, it is important to ask whether the international donor community should put all its eggs in this basket. In order to deal with the real challenges created by China in Africa, the international donor community will have to look further.

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