During the September 2018 Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), African Union Chairperson and Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, lauded the Chinese aid and investment strategy in Africa as a source of “deep transformation” in Africa. In Kagame’s view China-Africa cooperation is based on mutual respect between African states and China and is for the benefit of both partners. This sentiment is perhaps shared by most African heads of states and governments if their attendance at the recently-held FOCAC is anything to go by.
But as Africa seems set to go East for aid and investment assistance, the US seems rattled by this alliance with China. The US National Security Adviser John Bolton, in a recent policy briefing at Heritage Foundation poured cold water on the China-Africa cooperation arguing that Africa is an victim of Beijing’s new colonialism and that the continent is “captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands” due to huge debt it has offered.
Though coming from leaders this time, these views of China’s role in Africa are ubiquitous in policy circles and academia. The China-Africa relationship is being interpreted through two diametrically opposed narratives.
The first of these narratives is the Sino-phobic narrative. Proponents of this narrative depict China as a new colonial power in Africa. It is also the narrative mostly adopted by the west. For instance, the US Africa Strategy presciently puts it as follows: “China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands. … Such predatory actions are sub-components of broader Chinese strategic initiatives, including “One Belt, One Road”—a plan to develop a series of trade routes leading to and from China with the ultimate goal of advancing Chinese global dominance.”
As with the US, many western governments see China’s engagement in Africa as a cause for concern. For them, China is a spoiler of peace in oil-rich countries such as Suth Sudan and Sudan, and a supporter of despots in African countries such Gabon. Moreover, China is a resource and energy hungry giant, an exploiter of corrupt and incompetent governments, a trade opportunist, a massive polluter of the African environment.
The genuine partner
The second, and opposing narrative, is the Pro-China one. According to the proponents of this narrative, China is a savior and genuine partner of Africa. To them, China is a partner without a history of colonial aspirations, and also shares with many developing countries a similar historical background. China is also a partner that provides much-needed funding without any conditional strings attached, and which appears to understand Africa’s priorities. China also has a reputation among African countries, for respecting other cultures and states. This view is widely held by many African heads of states as can be inferred from Kagame’s remarks mentioned earlier.
Africa’s China: different from West’s China
The literature on the China-Africa partnership unjustifiably perpetuates the sino-phobic narrative and the media outlets likewise report a highly skewed image against the dictates of facts that provide a more positive view. For instance, while it is widely reported that China invests more in the extractive industry than in other sectors, the fact is that the extractive industry amounts to only one-third of the total Chinese investment. Compared to the United States and other developed countries, China’s share in African extractive investment, in the form of mining for example, is lower. However, it attains more critical coverage in the media and literature. The other two-thirds of China’s investment in Africa are in infrastructure, construction, manufacturing and finance.
The sino-phobic narrative championed by the west portrays African as a passive collaborator, and prey in this second “colonization”. This is not the case. Africans are aware of the shortcomings of Chinese assistance and trade in Africa, from imbalance in trade to hefty debt; from poor quality goods to corrupt practices. Africans also know that some Chinese business lack considerations of sustainability and that some business dealings are in some instances incompatible with the national interests of African countries. Furthermore, Africans recognize that Chinese business rarely fight corrupt practices; and are deflationary in accountability.
While China shares the responsibility in addressing these shortcomings, the weaknesses of African states and their regulatory and enforcement mechanisms compounded by self-serving governments are the main culprits. Chinese and other companies exploit these weaknesses for their advantage. For this reason, Africans must take the lion’s share of responsibility for these weaknesses. However, China also shares the blame as it has contributed, albeit by a varying degree, to these weaknesses due to a lack of normative principles and mechanisms for oversight of its dealings in Africa.
Coming from the West, Africans see the criticisms of China-Africa cooperation with serious misgivings and reservations. In terse words, the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, summarized the African position: Africa “refutes the view that a new colonialism is taking hold in Africa as our detractors would have us believe.” Debt trap is not an inevitable outcome of loans, as President Paul Kagame said, it rather “depends on us Africans.” The key factor in this regard is whether African governments use such loans for productive capital investment or not. More so, the lack of accountability of African governments to the people of Africa. This is not a task for China or America, rather it is solely that of Africans and Africa.
Why Africa loves China
There are some obvious reasons that make China a preferred partner for Africa. For Africans, China has four major attractions: Unconditional soft loans and access to capital; quick delivery of services and cheap goods; funding to peacekeeping; and inspirational alternative development history. Let us examine these further.
First, China’s unconditional and unqualified cooperation has allowed African governments to enjoy access to finance, expertise and development aid. To this end, China’s increase in financial inflow in Africa is staggering. In 2011, the trade between China and Africa reached USD 260 billion, of which USD 166 billion represented the value of China’s exports to Africa. This was a drastic surge from 1 billion USD in 1980. At FOCAC in Beijing this year, China offered USD 60 billion for development financing until 2021. With the financial crises in the USA and EU, China increased its investment in Africa, leading to the value of trade transactions exceeding the value of aid.
Consequently, China, through its unconventional development path and soft loans, has provided African governments with the possibility of tipping the balance of legitimacy for states at least in the delivery of some public goods. Easy access to soft loans has enabled many African governments to avoid pressure from global governance institutions such as IMF and World Bank to meet norms of Western accountability and conditionality related to political and economic reforms.
Second, China has aided African governments to meet their exponentially increasing public demands for services and infrastructure more quickly. These include in roads, buildings, bridges, airports, hospitals, schools, universities, and telecommunications. Many people are now so used to such quick delivery of services by Chinese companies that it has created, and will continue to create, more of an appetite for Chinese companies in Africa.
Third, China is now also engaged in peace and security projects in Africa through auxiliary troops contributions to peacekeeping operations in Africa. Chinese troops participate in eight UN peacekeeping missions of which five are in Africa including Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, Western Sahrawi and the DRC. China is also the second largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping and also contributed funding to African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and IGAD South Sudan mediation. It has helped in building many Pan African facilities.
Fourth, despite problems related to replication, China’s fast economic growth inspires many Africans and their leaders to play similar role to their citizens.
China: most inspirational for Africans
Chinese capacity to ensure policy sovereignty meaningful to its people remains relevant, and highly attractive to African leaders and scholars. According to the World Bank, in about 40 years, China has lifted about 800 million people out of poverty through its untraditional path of development. Notably, it achieved all the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. To neutral observers: Is there more service to humanity than this? Is there a more inspirational story for Africans than this? Is there a more effective instructional demonstration of sovereignty at work than this?
Pragmatic Pan African position
China is famously pragmatic. Its miraculous economic achievement is a result borne out of experience and progressive appreciation of the forces at play both inside and outside of the country. Pragmatism is expected once again to force China to adapt its partnership with Africa and address the shortcomings. Chinese pragmatism is summarized by what Deng Xiaoping, a former leader and transformer of China’s economy reportedly said that “It does not matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” In the same fashion, Africans should keep their home in order and make the best out of the competitions between great powers and regional players whether they are from the west, Far East or the Middle East.
As things stand, China is already winning the hearts and the minds of Africans, the west will have to either change tact or forever play catch up.