Interview: China and Angola Are Best Friends … For Now, Says Africa Center’s Dr. Assis Malaquias

By Africa Center for Strategic Studies
Updated: 07/26/2012

DrMalaquiasDr. Assis Malaquias is the Academic Chair for Defense Economics at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. His most recent publication is a chapter titled “China: Angola’s New Best Friend, for Now” in China and Angola: A Marriage of Convenience (Fahamu Books & Pambazuka Press) edited by Marcus Power and Ana Christina Alves. In the chapter, Dr. Malaquias continues his in-depth research and analysis on Angola and its geostrategic significance vis-à-vis global powers. The piece provides a concise review of China’s historical engagement with Angola, the mutual interests of the Angolan and Chinese governments, and prospects for this bilateral relationship moving forward.

In an interview with Africa Center writer Serge Yondou, Dr. Malaquias provides key elements to understand China’s relations with Angola and other African countries, and also the challenges that lay ahead.

Q: This is the first book to specifically address the bilateral relationship between Angola and China. Why did it take so long?

A: Angola and China entered this latest phase in their relationship relatively recently. To be precise, Angola sought this special relationship after the end of its long civil war in 2002 and China responded in significant and tangible ways starting two years later. Also, the impact of China’s relationship with Angola took a little time to begin bearing its first fruits. In other words, I do not believe that it took too long for a book focusing on this relationship to be published this year. Note, however, that there are a growing number of academic journal articles on the subject.

Q: Many African nations are examining their relationships with China, both from the viewpoint of economic development as well as from the standpoint of democratization and social development. What should other nations in Africa know about the Angola-China partnership? Are there broader lessons that could be applied elsewhere on the continent?

A: The Angola-China relationship is instructive in a number of important ways. First, China is pursuing its own very specific national interests. Specifically, to fuel its impressive economic growth, China needs to look elsewhere for resources it does not have (or has in dwindling supplies) at home. China’s drive aims, among other things, to lift hundreds of millions of its own people from poverty. In the process, expectedly, China has achieved a new positioning and role in the global arena. In this context, Africa has emerged as a privileged supplier of raw materials for China’s growth. In the case of Angola, the raw material of choice is oil. In return for precious raw materials, China has provided Angola and many other African countries with several things: money, infrastructure projects, and the labor to build those projects. Second, China is undoubtedly spurring economic growth in Africa. The roads, airports, stadia, etc. provide ample evidence of China’s impact. However, this growth is yet to affect human development in Africa. In other words, economic growth does not always translate into economic development. Third, although most Chinese projects are completed very quickly and cost-effectively, many have serious quality issues. Fourth, since Chinese companies bring their own inputs (and often rely on imported Chinese services and service-providers), the impact of Chinese activities on local business development is much lower than expected. Finally, a much lower than expected number of Angolans is acquiring the skills (construction, service, etc) that could have resulted from working with Chinese enterprises. Thus, either the Chinese companies will have to stay for much longer than either part anticipated (if only to provide proper regular maintenance to the infrastructure projects they are building) or those projects will quickly deteriorate, with implications for how China is viewed in Angola and elsewhere in Africa.

Q: This book explores why the partnership between China and Angola developed and shows how it serves the two countries’ separate interests both now and in the longer term. But the chapter you authored says both countries are best friends … for now. Do you anticipate any break out in that relation in the coming years? What could be the cause?

A: It will be difficult to sustain this relationship over the long run because the two countries are on different trajectories. Angola is attempting to build a fully functioning democracy and an open economy. China, on the other hand, is yet to provide signs that it is willing to liberalize its political system. As Angolan democracy matures, it will naturally gravitate toward other mature democracies.

Q: In 2012, most Angolans are still getting by on less than two dollars a day, despite their country’s rich deposits of oil and diamond. How do you explain that? How come that there is no trickledown effect of the country’s wealth so far?

A: As I mentioned before, economic growth does not necessarily equate to development. It all depends on who benefits from the growth. In the case of Angola, a small segment of the population has been allowed to capture the bulk of the proceeds from the spectacular growth that has taken place since the end of the civil war. Also, since many Angolans understand that the fastest way to realize their economic aspirations is through access to oil and diamond wealth (or those who control it), there is a disincentive to pursue other economic activities like agriculture.

Q: Before independence in 1975, Angola was a breadbasket of southern Africa and a major exporter of bananas, coffee and sisal. The country now depends on expensive food imports, mainly from South Africa and Portugal, while more than 90 percent of farming is done at family and subsistence level. Why is agriculture left on the side by Angolan leaders? What can be done to improve matters, and can the China partnership help?

A: Prior to independence in 1975, the agricultural sector – like all other economic sectors – was dominated by Portuguese settlers. The violence surrounding Angola’s independence led to the flight of just about all settlers, including those who lived in rural areas and were engaged in commercial farming. As a result, by the late 1970s, the formal agricultural sector had completely collapsed. Attempts to revive this important sector were then frustrated for nearly three decades because the rural parts of Angola were seriously affected by the protracted guerrilla war that ensued after the collapse of the power-sharing agreement between the liberation movements who fought to end colonialism in Angola. The result of the collapse of the agricultural sector in Angola can be seen in the fact that Angola currently imports much of its food needs. The end of the civil war in 2002 has created minimum conditions to re-launch the agricultural sector. But this will require a concerted effort by the government to design and implement agricultural policies that provide sufficient incentives for people to re-learn the skills and habits necessary to succeed in this sector. This, in turn, will lead – over time – to Angola regaining its position as a net producer of agricultural goods. Hopefully, this will happens before oil runs out.