Ominous, Auspicious… Or Something In Between: The Debate Surrounding China’s Role In Africa

Throughout the last decade, China has consistently expanded its presence in Africa and emerged as the continent’s largest source of foreign investment. With investments increasing from $210 million in 2000 to $3.17 billion in 2011, the country has demonstrated a sharp focus, and even surpassed the United States as the continent’s largest trading partner in 2009. This striking uptick in Sino-African engagement has led Western powers to question the intentions and consequences of China’s interest and involvement on the continent.

The numbers speak for themselves. Since the first Forum on Chinese and African Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, China has loaned approximately $126 billion to African countries and invested over $41 billion, numbers that far exceed those of Western powers, according to the Foreign Policy Research Institute. African security has become one of China’s top priorities and the continent itself has become a centrepiece of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s economic and foreign policy.

Officially known as “One Belt, One Road”, BRI is currently a $200 billion program in which Chinese banks and corporations fund and construct various infrastructure projects such as roads, power plants, ports, railways, 5G networks and fiber-optic cables. Intentionally reminiscent of the Silk Road, the initiative has expanded beyond its initial purview of connecting Asia and grown to contain 43 of Africa’s 54 recognized nations. Beyond BRI, China’s tool belt for development in Africa is based mainly on low-interest, long-term loans from state-owned enterprises and government sources.

China has also increased their diplomatic presence on the continent, pledging to mediate peace in the Horn of Africa and potentially expanding their already substantial military presence. Regardless of the form of engagement, the question remains: is China’s abundant activity in Africa legitimately contributing to prosperity and growth, or is it merely a facade for the extension of power and accruement of resources?

This debate surrounding China’s true intentions rages on, especially In light of Xi Jinping’s vocalized desire for a more assertive China, the United States’ waning influence on the continent and the competition between the two. Individually, the pieces of the puzzle seem benign. With a robust trade network and astronomical sums in investment, China has assisted in propelling economic growth and infrastructure development in Africa. Belt and Road was lauded by UN Secretary General António Guterres as “rooted in a shared vision for global development” with “immense potential” at the opening of the Belt and Road Forum in 2017, and approximately 63% of Africans reported somewhat or very positive feelings towards China’s economic and political influence, according to a 2016 poll of 36 African nations by Afrobarometer.

While some in the U.S. and India fear Chinese projects as Trojan horses for expansion of influence and power, there are reasons to believe that China is genuinely interested in an economic relationship with Africa. According to a Chatham House report, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party is deeply intertwined with consistent economic growth. Consequently, the recent slump in Chinese annual rate of GDP growth from 10% in the 2000s to 6.7% in 2016 is a pinnacle of concern for Chinese government officials, causing them to look elsewhere for growth possibilities in the face of internal tension and economic opposition from the West.

In conjunction with this political motive, the report cited three main reasons BRI is not the injurious venture many believe. Firstly, BRI is mainly an economic project. Secondly, China’s financing system for development is far too fragmented and uncoordinated to be a facade for any deeply intricate strategic objective. Finally, China’s financing greatly depends on the recipient country’s desires. As stated in the report, “developing-country governments are not hapless victims of a predatory Beijing; they – and their associated political and economic interests – determine the nature of BRI projects on their territory.”

Yun Sun, a Nonresident Fellow with Brookings’ Africa Growth Initiative also sees bilateral benefits for both China and Africa through this disputed involvement. She acknowledges how the power of Africa’s resources and potential as a business partner coupled with the necessity of infrastructure and development finance on the continent sets them up well for Chinese accompaniment. “Chinese development finance, combined with the aid, aims at not only benefiting the local recipient countries, but also China itself,” she reported.

Though the pieces seem harmless, it is their amalgamation with military involvement,  increasing diplomatic influence and China’s track record of convoluted domestic affairs that forms a concerning picture for many nations. While not inherently pernicious, Chinese influence in Africa cannot be viewed as mutually exclusive from Xi Jinping’s cornerstone of reasserting China in the world, nor can the violation of local laws, shirking of environmental standards, and lack of transparency in their infrastructure development in Africa be ignored. In fact, many in Africa’s civil society rightly worry about exploitative business practices and China’s failure to promote good governance and the protection of human rights. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, African workers are beginning to sound the alarm on iniquitous labor practices regarding wages and working conditions by Chinese companies. Countries such as Zambia have experienced issues and protests concerning the mass entrance of Chinese companies.

Another major concern pertains to the debt loads placed on African countries and the potential for a debt crisis to result from Chinese involvement. China is oftentimes accused of “debt-trap diplomacy”, the process of ensnaring developing countries into unsustainable loans for infrastructure projects that are then repossessed when the poorer nation cannot repay their debts. The most referenced instance of this is the case of Sri Lanka, where the island nation was pressured into borrowing from Chinese banks to build the port of Hambantota but, after failing to pay back their loans, was forced to give the port to China. While this supposed paragon of China’s ‘predatory’ activity has been debunked, the potential for China to take over key strategic points is enough to distress many nations such as India, which believes that China is using a “String of Pearls” geo-economic strategy to take control of key regional locations through the creation of unsustainable debt loads.

While a lack of transparency and unethical treatment of laborers are present and protested, the root of  the overwhelming international malaise surrounding China in Africa boils down to ideology and influence. The United States and China find themselves on opposite sides of the octagon regarding a liberal versus illiberal world order, and this overarching struggle has tainted the debate of Chinese involvement in Africa. China is acting in self-interest, but that does not engender pejorative intentions for the future of African countries. Those who see China as “winning” in Africa are missing the point: Africa is no longer the battleground for influence it has so often been relegated to throughout history, and nations should instead be providing options for African countries as true and equal partners.

While China’s aid and investment have filled the gap left by other global actors, world powers must also be aware of the ideological influence that comes with this economic involvement within the context of China’s own violation of freedom and human rights abuses. Chinese investment and infrastructure projects have already been linked to increased influence on the partner country’s ruling elite, according to Bloomberg’s Africa+ series. These economic partnerships then extend into the realm of politics as African countries begin to side with China on critical global issues. Researchers from Aid Data at the College of William & Mary have found a link between Chinese assistance and the alignment of host countries with their UN voting and One China principle. The United States must provide an alternative to Chinese projects not to “compete,” but to provide opportunities to take part in business backed by the values of democracy.  If countries want to promote principles of inclusivity, freedom and equality, a great way to do so is through win-win economic partnership.

Western nations have already begun to announce projects such as G7’s $600 billion Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment. Under Prosper Africa and the Prosper Africa Build Together initiative, the United States has outlined a desire for an increase in a US-Africa relationship in order to demonstrate “the superior value proposition of transparent markets and private enterprise” and it is in these two facets that the US differs from China. It is ultimately up to African countries to decide which system they will opt for but the US should provide an alternative or supplement to Chinese projects instead of fuming in opposition over a power struggle that does not prioritize the continent in which it takes place.

As recommended by Jonathan E. Hillman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the United States could use BRI projects as a way to let China pay for infrastructure initiatives that could benefit the U.S. as well. Nations, especially those in the West, should not let an ideological opposition to China be an impediment to accompanying growth abroad, and could instead engage with China and countries in Africa to improve transparency and governance of these projects. African countries are more than capable of accounting for their own interests and taking responsibility for the projects occurring in their countries, and those opposed to China’s influence should accompany or supplement infrastructure projects to showcase the values of democracy in action on the economic front.

While it rages on, this debate and the global perspective surrounding it should not be focused merely through the lens of ‘great power’ influence. Africa is not a sphere of influence to be won; it is a complex, diverse and vibrant combination of 54 recognized nations each with their own economic goals and interests. It is a continent with an active youth and vast potential that must be partnered with through transparent, sustainable agreements with truly bilateral benefits. The world must stop viewing China’s investment in Africa as either an altruistic desire to assist developing nations, or an inimical step in China’s exploitative scheme for anti-Western world domination. Ultimately, to view Africa as a mere pawn in this ‘great power competition’ is to force the continent into a side role in their own development story.


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