Some member states such as France and the UK have made efforts to engage China in trilateral cooperation but Chinese reluctance means impact is limited.
Since waking up to the fact that China is gaining ground at high speed in Africa, Europe has been striving to engage Chinese and African leaders in trilateral cooperation. Calling for increased transparency on trade deals and aid packages and urging China to behave more responsibly in Africa regarding its human rights and governance impact, the EU is also trying to contain the negative impact of China’s expansion in Africa on European businesses. Europe’s initial eagerness peaked when the French Presidency attempted to start a trilateral dialogue in 2008. However, interest in the issue among member states, which depends strongly on historical and strategic ties, has been difficult to sustain.
In 2010, China adopted an increasingly confident tone in Africa. Despite signs of a more constructive Chinese attitude on Sudan ahead of the 2011 referendum, there has been modest overall progress in engaging China on Africa from a European perspective. China was an observer at the last EU-Africa summit but hasn’t yet reciprocated with an invitation for the EU to join the next China-Africa summit. Attempts led by the European Commission to engage the very influential China Development Bank on projects and donor standards has also led to disappointing results.
Setbacks on the trilateral dialogue have led the EU to reduce its ambitions and refocus its efforts on multilateral second-track initiatives such as an OECD study group that looks at China’s experience of poverty reduction and possible applications in Africa. At the same time, the EU has redoubled its efforts to convince Africans of the virtues of the trilateral dialogue. Some member states, such as France and the UK, run their own Africa dialogues with China. Generally conducted with little coordination at the European level, these are often frustrating exercises. However, sheer persistence sometimes results in Chinese cooperation, as a British infrastructure project in the Democratic Republic of Congo illustrates.