Quite simply, the diplomatic face time in Beijing masked a string of difficult policy issues created by growing Chinese involvement in Africa. How the country addresses these challenges will, in turn, have an impact on its ties with the international community and, in particular, with the United States.
In closed-door discussions, Chinese specialists admit it will be difficult to overcome obstacles tied to language, culture, religion, limited outreach by the Chinese media in Africa, and racial bias.
There is relatively thin knowledge and expertise in the policy advisory and think tank communities in Beijing, with most information and analysis flowing from local embassies to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Neither is Beijing equipped to tap evolving African popular opinion (the "African street") or the increasingly influential non-governmental groups that since the end of the Cold War have become a vital feature of most African politics.
Chinese money is certainly flowing into Africa, but there doesn't appear to be a sophisticated agenda shaping its use.
Battles lie ahead
As Chinese government and business interests deepen in Africa, the country will face structural corruption, the absence of law, violence, hostage-taking and targeted attacks on private energy and other sectoral interests.
The growing Chinese diaspora business community also poses potential "reputational risks" related to bribery, counterfeit goods, and intellectual property rights violations. Indeed, there is already considerable evidence of disgruntlement on these issues coming out of African nations.
It is also unclear whether government agencies are fully prepared to effectively implement the sizeable commitments they have made to Africa.
A doubling in developmental assistance by 2009, hundreds of agriculture and public health advisors, training for 20,000 African professionals and students, hospitals, malaria clinics – all these things have been promised and Chinese planners will no doubt ensure that these goals are met at least on paper. But translating these programs into the broader declared strategy of enhancing African stability, alleviating poverty, integrating Africa into the global economy, and assuring Chinese access to a reliable supply of African natural resources is an altogether different matter. Many other governments and international agencies have tried and failed.
Criticism to come
Beijing will at the same time confront mounting pressures from African and external critics for more transparency in Chinese aid and business practices.
It seems unlikely that China will be able to out-muscle the international community of multilateral and bilateral donors on either political or financial grounds, even if it wished to. If China is going to play a greater role as a donor in Africa – a welcome prospect – it would make far more sense to coordinate efforts with established programs from the World Bank, IMF and United Nations agencies, to name but a few.
Then there is the US, which has tried to engage China on its Africa ambitions. So far, this has amounted to just one round of "sub-dialogue" as part of a "senior leaders dialogue" launched by former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. Real content is required if these discussions are to bear fruit.
In addition, Beijing needs to become more familiar with the growing number of American non-governmental organizations – from faith-based groups to good governance activities to humanitarian relief operations – which have significant political clout in Washington and bring substantial financial resources to their work in Africa.
Chinese authorities are not typically comfortable working with such organizations, but they will increasingly come into contact with them as China's role in Africa expands.
The US, China and the international community at large share a number of fundamental interests in Africa. Collaboration is the key to realizing them, just as it is in managing the areas of tension. A descent into damaging and unnecessary strategic competition in Africa won't be of help to anyone – least of all the African people in search of a more stable and prosperous future.