China promotes South-South Cooperation in Durban

As part of its green diplomacy strategy and move to promote a positive image in Durban, China for the first time highlighted its own development aid in the context of South-South capacity building and financial assistance with least-developed countries (LDCs) and small-island states (SIDs).

On December 5, Xie Zhenhua, NDRC Vice Minister and head of the Chinese delegation in Durban, announced four major areas of investment through South-South collaboration, including:

  1. Adaptation: helping developing countries that are most vulnerable to extreme weather to develop weather forecasting, disaster prediction capacity, and improved early-warning capacities;
  2. Promotion of climate change adaptation technology, including sustainable agriculture assistance, and technology to help needy countries with drought resistance, water conservation, and biodiversity;
  3. Dissemination and donation of technology in energy conservation, water conservation, and renewable energy to small island states and least developed countries;
  4. Continuation of capacity building programs for developing countries that need it. In the next three years, China plans to continue to carry out a series of capacity building activities in climate change and train 1,000 officials in developing countries.

Minister Xie added that during the Eleventh Five-Year Plan period, China established 121 assistance programs for climate change implementation. These programs involved 93 training programs that provided capacity building to over 207,000 personnel. The 12th Five-Year Plan also includes provisions to further assist other developing countries to address climate change.

Foreign assistance as a business opportunity

Although Chinese officials publicized South-South cooperation as a mode of foreign aid to LDCs and SIDs, it is also clear that these partnerships represent business opportunities for China as well. Trade between China and Africa has increased dramatically over the last decade: the Ministry of Foreign Commerce in China reported earlier this year that trade with Africa jumped to $126.9 billion in 2010 compared to only about $10 billion in 2000.

Other examples include the China Energy Conservation and Environmental Protection Group, a large state-owned enterprise that has 10 percent of its business invested in other developing countries, particularly in the renewable energy and carbon emission reduction sectors. In addition, the South-South Gate, established in Shanghai in 2008 by UNDP, is functioning as a major gateway for small and middle-sized Chinese enterprises to invest in developing countries. Clearly, Chinese businesses are also starting to benefit from the government’s strategic cooperation and financial assistance to other developing countries.

In Durban, what was not made explicit were the terms of foreign assistance and what strings were coming attached, if any. Grenada, a 344-sq km island in the South Caribbean Sea, was announced as a major beneficiary of China’s bid to promote South-South cooperation. Through an AOSIS-China Climate Change Adaptation Pilot Programme (CAAP), the small island states will receive more than $2 million USD in technology assistance from China over a five-year period. While the assistance will involve major infrastructure projects to build public buildings as well as technology transfer to adapt to the impacts of climate change, a government announcement on Grenada’s country website noted that the financing for hardware, equipment and training from China would come in the form of loans, with repayment tied to savings in fuel imports. The details of what exactly is meant by this type loan repayment were not made clear, and whether this is a means by which China can further secure natural resources in LDCs and SIDs.

Not all positive

While China was clearly promoting its South-South partnerships as part of its positive public-relations strategy for Durban, it is important to note that not all of China’s relationships with (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDs) are seen as positive. Chinese-run copper mines in Zambia have been the subject of accusations of failing to meet standards for worker health and safety, and Chinese involvement in the country has continued to be a controversial topic.

In Durban, we had the opportunity to speak briefly with the mayor of Livingstone – the capital of the Southern Province in Zambia. He expressed to us the conflicting attitude of Zambians toward Chinese investment in his country. "It [financial assistance] always comes with strings attached," he told us, noting that accepting Chinese financial assistance was a hot topic in the last round of elections in Zambia, with newly elected President Michael Sata promising to take a tougher stance on illegal Chinese labor practices and even local leaders hesitant to accept Chinese investments. In the end, he noted that economic pressures are often paramount, and the result has been increasing separation and strife between the local Zambians in his city and the Chinese project developers, who are not well-integrated into their African society.

Others have expressed concern that China’s reach into Africa could further intensify the impacts of climate change, which Africa is already feeling through the form of severe drought and flood. While adaptation technology and sustainable agriculture were announced as core areas of South-South cooperation, it does not go unnoticed that China’s own greenhouse gas emissions are a considerable contributing factor to the effects of global warming felt by LDCs and SIDs.

Separation from the Green Climate Fund

Despite the demonstration of leadership in South-South partnerships, the Chinese were careful to keep the discussion of South-South cooperation outside of the official negotiations. The main reason for containing these conversations within the China Pavilion and on the sidelines is that China is not yet ready to be a donor to the Green Climate Fund, as is expected of developed countries. The Chinese maintained in Durban that South-South cooperation is a separate issue from the climate talks, but it is clear that these announcements were part of a strategy to promote a positive and constructive image of China in the negotiations themselves.

Angel Hsu is a Phd candidate at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a contributing expert to ChinaFAQs.org. She attended COP-17 in Durban.

Image courtesy of Angel Hsu.