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
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
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.
Dr. Mehari Taddele Maru
Robert Schuman Fellow
Migration Policy Centre
European University Institute
Via Boccaccio 151
I-50133 Florence, Italy