Is your relationship with China better than mine?

Just a few weeks ago, my sister got married. The wedding was beautiful, her husband is an absolutely wonderful man from Uganda, and my two other sisters and I were bridesmaids. But there was one problem. I found myself comparing her wedding to mine seven years ago. Either thinking “Oh, I wish we had done our flowers like that” or “I wish we had practiced our first dance a bit more”. It was when I turned to my husband to tell him yet another comparison that he reminded me of a famous phrase first coined by Mark Twain in the late 1800’s: “comparison is the death of joy”. And in so many words, he helped me curb my comparative reflection.

But comparison is an easy trap to fall in, whether you’re an individual, group, country – and even a region. Here in China last week, comparison was in the air as the first ever meeting between Chinese government leaders and Ministers of CELAC – a group of 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries formed in 2011 – got underway. The comparison was with another region – Africa.

Indeed, there was and is a lot to compare, starting with the fact that while 2015 welcomed the 1st China-CELAC meeting, and Chile will host the 2nd in 2018, meetings between China and African countries have been ongoing since the year 2000, through the Forum of China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). FOCAC Ministers will meet for the 6th time in the last quarter of this year in South Africa.

The African region also appeared to be ahead in other, more noticeable ways. The 2014 White Paper on China’s Foreign Assistance set out that over 50% of Chinese assistance spent between 2010 and 2012 goes to African countries, while around 8% goes to the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region. Of course, this is justifiable. You’ll have to forgive me for some rounding errors (as the country groupings don’t match perfectly) but based on data collected by the World Bank, the poverty rate in developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (i.e. the proportion of people living under $1.25 per day) is 46.8%, compared to 2.2% for developing countries in the LAC region. On average, people in LAC countries have an income around 6 times larger than those in Africa.

But differences in poverty and income don’t explain everything.

For instance, the number of Chinese firms in Africa is estimated to be over 2000, while the LAC region appears to host half that – between 640 and 1100 firms. This may well be associated with the fact that across Africa, there are 30 or so Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) or Trade Agreements (TAs) with China, while across the LAC region, there are just 16 or so. Most BITs and TAs tend to make it easier and more predictable for businesses to invest in other countries.

On the other hand, African countries’ trade with China somewhat lags that of LAC countries (at US$210bn and US$267bn in 2013 respectively). Indeed, China’s targets for trade with LAC announced during last week’s China-CELAC meeting are just as ambitious as those previously announced for Africa. China is targeting annual trade volumes of US$500bn by the next ten years with LAC, and $300bn worth with Africa by the end of this year. The comparison with respect to investment is similar. Currently, investment by China in LAC countries is around three times larger than estimated investment in African countries, but for both regions China has big ambitions. China is targeting investment of US$250bn into the LAC region over the next decade, and US$1 trillion into the African region by 2025.

That said, individuals seem to move between China and Africa much more than between China and LAC. In 2013, the total amount of tourism (i.e. both ways) between China and LAC was estimated at 550,000, compared to over 2.3 million between China and Africa. Migration to and from China also seems to follow similar trends – for instance, this UN report puts migrants from Asia as a whole to LAC and Africa at 0.3 million and 1.1 million people respectively.

But these differences can be justified too. Developing countries in Sub-Saharan African countries house 960 million people, while LAC countries house around half that – around 590 million people. Tourism and migration, in addition to aid, are probably significantly more critical for the African region than they are for the LAC region. Looking even further beyond money and business, around 50% of the members of both CELAC and FOCAC are yet to establish Confucius Institutes.

On balance, like me comparing myself to my sister, comparing what China is doing across regions, and even across countries, is fairly pointless. The fact is my sister and I both had weddings and they were great in their own way. The CELAC meeting in Beijing last week was by all accounts a great success – its’ worth basking in that joy! But unlike me and my sister, I actually think cross country comparisons can be useful for better understanding why China partners in the way it does, and, especially if you live in a recipient country, considering the degree of ambition to aim for when working with China. That’s why, in the coming months, we at UNDP China will be working on a series of briefs to illustrate cross-country or regional comparisons of relations with China – where the information is available.

Indeed, far from being a thief of joy, more comparison in this case could lead to more growth, poverty reduction, and joy for the countries around the world working with China. And in the end, that means more joy here in China!

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