African motivation for engagement with China: A case study of Mauritius

12 October 2017 | 10:03

African motivation for engagement with China: A case study of Mauritius

Made in China. Photo: Thomas Hawk


Relations between China and Africa have experienced significant momentum in economic development over the last decade. Although China’s interaction with African countries covers a wide range of arenas, from political and economic to military-related, much of China’s engagement with Africa is centred on economic activities through a mix of increased aid, trade and investment. The resulting impact has attracted a considerable amount of attention and debate. There is an extensive and growing body of research on the nature of China’s increasing involvement in Africa (Goldstein et al. 2006; Carmody and Owusu 2007; Kitissou 2007; Alden 2007, 2008; Carmody 2008; Brautigam 2009; Taylor 2010). Most of the literature on China-Africa relations has attempted to understand China’s move into Africa, with the focus on China’s role and impact in Africa. However, there are few examples in the literature that have approached Sino-African relations as a vibrant, two-way dynamic in which both sides adjust to the policy initiatives and popular perceptions emanating from each other. The impetus for Africa’s embrace of China has not yet been adequately examined. Through this case study of Mauritius, this thesis asserts that Mauritius, as an African country, engages willingly with China, driven primarily by its national interests. This assertion contradicts most of existing literature that presents African states as subject to the demands of a dominant and exploitative China.


In 2015, I conducted research that aims to understand and explain Africans’ motivations in engaging with China, which investigates and challenges widely held views on China’s exploitative behaviour and goes on to explore African perceptions of China’s engagement through a case study of Mauritius. More than 50 interviews were carried out during this period with Mauritians who engage with China, 32 of which were of a semi-structured nature. Interview respondents included Mauritian government officers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Regional Integration and International Trade, the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development and Mauritians business people. The three major findings from the research are presented in the subsequent paragraphs.


The first distinctive theme that emerges from this study is that the historical cultural and ethnic ties that Mauritius has with China may have smoothed the interactions between the two countries, especially in business and trade among the Chinese-Mauritians and the Mainlander Chinese. Although the strength of the ties to mainland China may be weak, there is more trust, and it is more straightforward to do business with the mainland because of the ancestral ties and cultural affinities. A story shared by one trader vividly illustrates this connection: a Chinese Mauritian trader who spotted a gap in the Mauritius market for cheap rain boots alerted his relative in Guangdong who ran a shoe factory; they sealed the deal and got the shoes to Port Louis before the rainy season ended. Yet, it would be naïve to overestimate the role that cultural affinity and ethnic bonds play in motivating Mauritians to engage with China, or to romanticize the relationship, by arguing that it is because of these ties that Mauritians engage with China. It is not surprising that Chinese Mauritians are likely to engage with China and Chinese newcomers due to the “blood tie”. Yet this point does not apply to non-Chinese Mauritians. Although almost all interviewees, including the non-Chinese Mauritians, have been involved with the economic contribution that Chinese Mauritians have made to the country, and uniformly indicate their admiration and appreciation towards Chinese culture, these views should not be interpreted as the driver behind their engagement with China. The positive impression about China is likely to increase the willingness but only to a limited extent.


The second distinctive theme that emerges from this study is that Mauritians are engaging with China in part because of their economic interests. The narratives provided by the interviewees all described high demand in Mauritius and the urgent need to create infrastructure. This finding can to some extent confirm existing knowledge regarding China’s aid approach and its project-based aid: Chinese aid is tied to Chinese products and Chinese firms (Lancaster 2007). Essentially, Chinese aid can be considered mutually beneficial in the sense that it helps China’s own development as much as that of its developing country partners (Nissanke and Soderberg 2011). Yet, the quality of Chinese projects seems to raise concern in Mauritius. Dr Sithanen pointed out that “quality should over quantity”. Although the Chinese have completed many “good projects” in Mauritius, the quality of the projects was not what they expected. “Cracks have already appeared on the wall of the newly built airport terminal, and there are some corner leaks” (ibid). Although the Mauritian side has concerns about the quality of these projects, it does not appear that they have a better alternative to China. Overall, Mauritians engage with China because it is in their own economic interest to do so and they intend to maximize these interests through the engagement. Another important point exposed is that Mauritius wants to “develop” and “to achieve a new high-income status.” Infrastructure is what they believed they need in order to grow. To take a close look at Mauritius’ economy, it reveals some of the unspoken difficulties facing Mauritius: long-term low stagnating growth and climbing deficit. “In regard to the domestic economy, we note that growth has continued to oscillate around an anaemic 3 percent for the last decade. Such a low growth rate cannot generate enough employment and improvement in living standards. At this sub-par rate, we will be soon be overtaken by other countries. In 2014, the unemployment rate stood at 7.8 percent…It took a growth rate of around 6.5 percent to achieve full employment. With regards to the deficit, the current account showed a deficit of Rs 39.6 billion, representing 10.3 percent of GDP… Public sector debt for the purpose of the statutory debt ceiling, increased to 54.2 percent of GDP by end 2014. 61 percent is an alarming level when measured using IMF definition.” Mauritius facing its grim economy and fading growth, in order to develop seems have to engage with “a capable partner which can easily ‘pull Mauritius out of this situation’”.


The last theme is that Mauritians are engaging with China because they want to learn from China. The engagement through learning has been taking place between the two countries at different levels in different fields. At the governmental level, although Mauritius does not seem to clearly show that they want to replicate “China’s development model”; based on the narrative, they appear to want to learn about China’s experience and lessons in its development. The narrative shows that Mauritius has picked some of China’s development experience for its own use, holding a strong belief that these lessons would work for itself. In fact, learning is a dynamic interaction; China seems to be willing to teach and share as well. China has promoted its own “brand of economic development and reform model” to African countries by encouraging government counterparts in Africa countries visit China and to learn from China’ experience. Through this practice, China has exported its notion of economic development with Chinese characteristics to African trading partners, encouraging them to develop their economy through trade and investment in infrastructure (Thompson 2004).


A key purpose of this study is to determine the nature of China-Mauritius relations and to ascertain Mauritian motivations in this engagement. By examining the increasing momentum of the relationship between the two countries, this study has identified the drivers behind this engagement as evidence to support the central argument: that Mauritians are increasingly engaging with China because they believe that such engagement will benefit them and their country. The assumption behind most of the existing literature on China-Africa relations, that Africans play a passive role in their interaction with China and that China’s engagement is detrimental to the development of African countries (Ogunrotifa 2011; Chin 2014; Deepak 2014; Tiffen 2014), does not seem to hold where Mauritius is concerned. Rather, in the case of Mauritius’ engagement with China, the country has pursued pragmatic economic diplomacy with a view to achieving sustainable economic growth and development. China in part shares the same aims because China’s engagement in Africa is “driven by economic diplomacy and a businesslike relationship, aiming at producing mutual benefits and benefiting its own development” (Alves in Alden et al. 2008; Moyo 2009). Economic incentives, though not the only factor, fundamentally serve as one of the drivers in China-Mauritius relations.


Jielin Zhang is an MBA candidate at Said Business School, University of Oxford. Previously, she was a Research Fellow at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School, in Hong Kong; and a consultant for a leading management consulting firm and United Nations Development Programme. Her research interests include impact investment, entrepreneurship and emerging markets. Her work has appeared on CEIBS Business Review and UN Perspectives. She received her MPhil in Development Studies at the University of Oxford.


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