EU, China and the Environmental Challenge in Africa:A case study from timber industry in Gabon
Serena Belligoli (Université de Louvain la Neuve)
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The EU has positioned itself at the forefront in the fight for the protection of the environment, doing a widespread advocacy effort at the global level. This paper does not aim to broadly discuss EU environmental policy, but it rather investigate the role of the EU as a normative power in the environmental domain, with particular focus on the FLEGT initiative and on sustainable forest management. It will highlight strengths, weaknesses and contradictions of the EU approach. China's increasing presence in environmentally sensitive sectors on the African continent, and, among them, in timber industry, raises severe concerns about the environmental impact of such activities. This paper will therefore analyze the potential and actual achievements of the EU-China-Africa trilateral dialogue and cooperation, with particular regard to the FLEGT initiative.
The first part of this paper defines the concept of normative power in the environmental domain, with regard to the EU and China. It argues that, in this domain, while the EU positions itself as a normative power, China, despite enjoying an undeniable power of attraction, is not using this political capital as a normative power would do. Beijing in fact, rather focuses on domestic environmental challenges, while being less attentive to the external environmental dimension. Despite some timid signs of change, Beijing preponderantly advocates for self-centered principles such as national sovereignty and non-intervention.
The second part of this paper deals with a case study, issued from timber industry in Gabon. The choice of this economic sector is based on the fact that Chinese legislation in the forest sector is commonly considered rather advanced, which allows us to highlight the disparity between its domestic and external commitment to sustainable forest management. Forest sector is also particularly interesting since the EU FLEGT initiative (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) is explicitly identified by the EU Commission as a promising area of trilateral cooperation between the EU, China and African countries. Gabon is the leading African timber exporter and, during the last two decades, it has seen a substantial export market shift from Europe to Asia, notably to China. After a brief outline of Gabon timber industry and of Chinese presence in this sector, the paper throws a critical regard on the EU FLEGT initiative, as well as on the Euro-Gabonese dialogue on FLEGT and EU-China-Africa trilateral dialogue and cooperation on FLEGT.
The third and last part provides some angles of enquiry about the factors that might raise Chinese awareness concerning the environmental impact of its activities overseas, leading Beijing to take some more substantial initiatives to tackle this issue and increasing the credibility and effectiveness of the EU as a normative power.
The research has been based on a series of interviews with Gabonese and European experts and officials, who prefer to remain anonymous. The Chinese counterpart proved particularly difficult to involve in our research. Despite that, we commit ourselves to maintain as much as possible an impartial regard. We would finally like to thank the IBL Chair on EU-China relations for supporting this research.