Chinese President Hu Jintao's current eight-nation tour of Africa should leave no doubt that the "Chinese Century" is in full swing in Africa. But if African states want to be equal partners in the emerging Africa-China relationship, they need, ironically, to rip a page from the European imperialist handbook.
In 1884-85, European states famously held a conference in Berlin to establish the ground rules in the "scramble for Africa." That model for mutual cooperation is one that Africa would do well to emulate: African heads of state need a Pan-African summit in Africa to decide on some ground rules for Africa-China cooperation.
One of those rules is to recognize what China wants from Africa. China seeks secure access to the raw materials it needs to feed its roaring economy. Take oil. Fifteen years ago China was self-sufficient in oil. Today, it has become the world's second-largest importer of oil, a need that will accelerate, as experts predict that by 2020 there will be 140 million private cars in China.
China's long-term interests in Africa are reflected in its overall trade.
A recent study indicates that China has overtaken Britain to become Africa's third-most important trading partner (after the US and France). China has already invested billions of dollars in Africa and billions more are earmarked for the future. China is active all over Africa, building railways, mines, and manufacturing plants. It has poured billions of dollars into Sudan's oil industry, money very welcome to a regime with few friends. China recently signed a loan deal with Zimbabwe, another country with few international friends, and has signed a deal with Angola, the latest country to join OPEC.
Overall trade between Africa and China grew more than 50 percent in 2005 to $42 billion. If this stunning pace continues, and there are no indications to suggest otherwise, the ripple effects could be massive.
Underscoring China's focus on Africa was the third Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, held last November. The summit was attended by 48 of 53 African heads of state as well as many other high-ranking African public officials and private citizens. Even more remarkable is President Hu's current two-week African tour, following a seven-nation tour by Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing last month.
Should Africans be concerned about the entente between China and Africa? Not necessarily.
Warm ties during the cold war
Many Africans are keen to point to the relations between Africa and China during the cold war as evidence that China has no "imperial" ambitions in Africa. During the cold war, China supported many newly independent African governments that sought to follow a socialist path or who simply insisted they were nonaligned.
At a news conference recently, Mr. Li said, "Our relations with African states are based on equality, mutual benefit, and respect." This phrase has become a mantra in Chinese official circles.
But African leaders need to keep in mind two critical points in this new age of Africa-China relations.
First, the cold war days are over. It was as much in China's interest to support anti-imperialist or anti-Western regimes in Africa as it was in the interests of these regimes to forge an alliance with China. These relations were built on mutual self-interest.
Second, it is not China's responsibility to "look out" for African self-interest. This is the job of Africa's self-appointed and elected leaders. The idea that China's historical "friendship" with Africa relieves Africans of the responsibility to forge a mutually beneficial relationship is dangerous.
Sure, the West is jealous of the emerging role China is playing in Africa. It is hard – perhaps impossible – for Britain and France not to see Africa as falling naturally within their sphere of interest. But for Africa to reject the West's delusions and embrace an African romanticism that harks back to the Africa-China relations during the nationalist and early independence days is just as delusionary.
African heads of state would do well to study Chinese history. It's essential to recall that imperialism is not foreign to China's long and glorious history.
• Anene Ejikeme is a professor of history at Trinity University.