Africa-China Romance and Crocodile Tears From the West, By Simbo Olorunfemi
To some, China’s intentions in Africa may not be “completely altruistic, they are also not completely exploitative” but one of mutual reinforcement, even if both parties might not be completely satisfied. But that is the nature of international relations. It is all about interests, which are dynamic in form and content, with trade-offs always a part of the bargain. It is up to each party to ensure that its interests are secured and find the means to maximise benefits from the relationship.
The relationship between Africa and China, strengthening by the day, is one that has generated more than a cursory interest in different quarters, in and out of Africa. The increased interest and presence of China in Africa is such that Professor Ian Taylor cites it as arguably the most important development for the continent since the end of the Cold War. It is one relationship wherein the parties involved do not enjoy the luxury of privacy as much as they might like to, with probing eyes and questions from all over. The eyes and response of the West would almost make one conclude that the Africa-China Relationship is an illicit affair, one that is neither in the interest of Africa nor the world.
The unease or what might be called apprehension on the part of the West on the growing relationship between Africa and China is particularly striking. In March 2018, just before his visit to Africa, which eventually ended abruptly, former American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused China of “predatory loan practices” in Africa, which, to him, was undermining growth and creating “few, if any jobs” on the continent. While in Ethiopia, the American secretary of state accused the Chinese of providing “opaque” project loans, which only boost African debt without providing significant training to them. Indeed, that accusation is neither new nor was it coming from a high-ranking American Official for the first time. Tillerson’s predecessor in office, Hillary Clinton was of the same voice. She sternly warned Africans to be careful of what she tagged “new colonialism.”
The question is why is the Africa-China relationship of so much interest to the West that it would be issuing a FATWA against its consummation? What really is the nature of the relationship? Could it be that Africa is so carried away on the wings of love that she is no longer able to see clearly as she is being led down the path of exploitation and abuse? Is the growing relationship between Africa and China one of mutual consent? Is it a symbiotic relationship or a parasitic one? These questions should, of course, be of prime interest and concern to Africans in particular, given our recent history.
The impression often painted is that the Africa-China affair is a recent one, but evidence from literature indicates otherwise. It might be waxing stronger today than it had ever been, but then, there have been flings in the past. But the relationship has been traced as far back as 202 BC, with archaeological excavations and DNA tests leading in the direction of conclusive evidence of interesting interactions that might have left behind Africans of Chinese descent in parts of East Africa. Some ethic groups in South Africa also claim descent from Chinese sailors dating back to the 13th century. Their physical appearance is said to be similar to the Chinese, with paler skin and their language having tonal similarities with Mandarin. In Awatwa, their language, the name they have for themselves is said to mean “abandoned people.
Accounts also have it that it was, in fact, not a one-way journey. One author lists Kings and Envoys from Africa as having been a part of a royal entourage that included those of Asia, Arabia and the Indian Ocean, which paid homage to Emperor Zhu Di, ‘the son of Heaven’ in 1421.
In terms of contemporary relations, following the Communist revolution of 1949, the Chinese began another round of engagement with Africa. This became strengthened by the role the Chinese played in the liberation struggle and push against colonial forces in Africa, as they subtly sold their socialist manifesto, as opposed to that of the Soviet Union. The defining contribution by the Chinese to economic development in Africa in the 1970s was its decision to build the Tanzam railway which linked land-locked Zambia’s copper belt with the Tanzanian coast 1,100 miles away. The project was constructed at a cost of $406 million from a 30-year interest-free credit from China, the equivalent of $2.56 billion today. A year before the assistance from China, Britain, Japan, West Germany, World Bank the United States and United Nations had all turned down the proposal to fund the project. Yet, the significance of the project went beyond the possible economic gains. Its political and strategic importance, at the time, was even more telling. Jamie Monson puts it in proper perspective: “Zambia and Tanzania had been by far the leading supporters of the liberation movements directed against southern Africa. The completed road gave Zambia access to the sea through a friendly country, in place of the traditional routes through Rhodesia and Mozambique or through Angola. By thus reducing Zambia’s vulnerability to economic retaliation for its aid to guerrillas operating in the south, the project was expected to contribute directly to the revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle.”
Over time, China and the different peoples of Africa have, in varied ways, found points of convergence around trade and commerce, as basis for a relationship. But it is the economic turnaround in China that has lent itself as a model and basis for possible partnership for the African countries burdened by the challenge of poverty in the face of limited resources. Of recent, the role of China on the continent has been defined by the financing of more than 3,000, largely critical, infrastructure projects, extending more than $86 billion in commercial loans to African governments and state-owned entities between 2000 and 2014, an average of about $6 billion a year. These are largely unconditional and low-rate credit lines (rates at 1.5 per cent over 15 years to 20 years), which have now taken the place of the more restricted and conditional loans from the West. Some say China can be over-bearing in terms of debt recovery, but then, since 2000, China has cancelled more than $10 billion in debt owed by African nations.
At the recently concluded Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Beijing, which had in attendance Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and 49 heads of state and government, the chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission and more than 240 ministerial level officials from 53 African members, China announced an extension of $60 billion financing to Africa in different forms, around eight initiatives. This includes $15 billion grants, interest-free loans and concessional loans. China also vowed to encourage Chinese companies to invest more than $10 billion in Africa in the coming three years.
The question that is often asked is this: To what do we owe this generosity on the part of the Chinese? Scholars have proffered explanations on the strength of what they call the ‘pull’ and ‘push’ factors. According to Wasiu Alli, “as the economy expanded, there was need for more markets for the products of the very productive Chinese manufacturing sector. And equally important, there was need for more access to all manner of raw materials from solid minerals, to oil and gas and even timber and agricultural products”. Those are some of the push factors. The ‘pull’ factors have to do with the huge endowment of solid mineral resources, oil and gas and agricultural products in Africa and the ‘relatively huge market of potential consumers of products’. China’s gas consumption increased by 15 per cent in 2017, accounting for 32.6 per cent of global gas consumption net growth which, in part, might explain China’s interest in Africa, with countries like Nigeria and Angola sitting on abundant reserves of oil and gas, and with the Gulf of Guinea estimated to hold a minimum of 15 billion barrels of oil in deep waters.
Apart from the presence of natural resources being a pull, African countries have put in place different incentive packages in a bid to attract foreign investment, which is a further source of interest for investors from other countries. It is the coincidence of all these factors that have prompted renewed Chinese interest in Africa, with President Hu Jintao affirming Africa as the natural partner of China.
China is often lambasted as a nefarious actor in its African dealings, but the evidence tells a more complicated story. Chinese loans are powering Africa, and Chinese firms are creating jobs. China’s agricultural investment is far more modest than reported and welcomed by some Africans. China may boost Africa’s economic transformation, or they may get it wrong…
But beyond these, there is an affinity in shared experiences with poverty that seems to bind both Africa and China. Only forty years ago, China was as poor as Africa. Femi Adesina quotes Professor HE Wenping of the Institute of West African and Asian Studies of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to have captured what it was like then: “China, which is now the world’s second biggest economy, used to be very poor. Before you could get married as a man then, you must get three things; a bicycle, which you would ride with your wife, a television set (a whole community may have just one, which they would all gather to watch in an open place), and a sewing machine. That would be used to sew clothes worn by the family.”
Stephen Chan argues however that the bond is beyond poverty, as China was still poor when it started supporting Africa, before and immediately after some of the African countries attained independence. The answer is to be found in Chinese culture, the Confucian ethic of guanxi, loosely translated as reciprocation “in a chain of vertical hierarchies” in which respect and obeisance flow up, while the higher personage is expected to cause value to flow down and extend generosity downwards. Beyond that, the Chinese, victims at the hands of imperial powers, seem to find it easy to connect with Africa, on account of a shared heritage of humiliation by external forces. China, in when it comes to a relationship with Africa, “set about a lengthy courtship and is receiving, and hopes to receive a lengthy payback as long-term resource agreements come to fruition.”
Indeed, the debate that surrounds the China-Africa relations has been energised by what is perceived as enthusiasm on the part of the African power elite for a handshake with the Chinese and warm embrace with “Chinese investments and development aid, leading to speculation in some quarters about the prospects of Africa’s rejection of the “Washington consensus” in favour of a “Beijing consensus” based on the Chinese model of state-guided capitalism. Linked to this is the issue of what China represents for Africa: an opportunity/partner for an (alternative model of) mutual development or (neo) colonialism by invitation.”
Efem Ubi sits this debate around two schools of thought. One group is made of ‘Sinophobes’ and ‘Sinoskeptics’ who argue that by “China’s energy needs and craving for strategic raw materials, its main drive into Africa, as well as a push factor for its gifts to Africa, and more so, by its presence in Africa, it seems China is inadvertently tilting towards colonising the continent”. But another group argues that “China’s presence in Africa is positively affecting Africa’s economy, by driving up commodity prices and thus, heightening economic investment and trade growth to countries with or without resources. And at the same time, there has also been a steady increase in China’s share of trade as well as access to raw materials that is needed to build the Chinese domestic economy.”
The increasingly dominant position of China in Africa is evident in the volume of trade between the two. Whereas in 1980, the trade volume between China and Africa was only US$1 billion and US$10 billion by 2000, according to statistics by China Customs, it amounted to US$170 billion in 2017. It was up 14.1 per cent year-on-year, 2.7 percentage points higher than the general increase of foreign trade from 2016 to 2017. Among these, China’s exports to Africa reached US$94.74 billion, up 2.7 per cent; while China’s imports from Africa reached US$75.26 billion, up 32.8 per cent with a trade surplus in favour of China of US$19.48 billion, down 45.2 per cent year-on-year. China meets a significant portion of its oil need through imports from Africa, mainly from Angola. Benin, Burkina Faso and Mali supply China with cotton, with Cocoa coming from Côte d’Ivoire, coffee imported from Kenya, while Namibia is one of the main sources for fish products.
“A 2017 McKinsey study reports that there are more than 10,000 Chinese-owned firms operating in Africa today, about a third of whom are involved in manufacturing. Notably, French academic Tierry Pairault points out that the overwhelming majority of these enterprises are small and micro businesses. McKinsey also reports that Chinese investment in Africa increasingly contributes to job creation, skills development, and the transfer of new technologies, practices more generally associated with Western business norms.
“China is not only the biggest partner that Africa has but also the biggest investor in the African market, having overtaken the United States and the former colonial powers who had been traditionally the largest economic partners to Africa. The trade volume between China and Africa has grown over 40 times in the last 20 years. China has extended more than $86 billion in commercial loans to African governments and state-owned entities between 2000 and 2014, an average of about $6 billion a year… As a result, China has become the region’s largest creditor, accounting for 14 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s total debt stock, according to Foresight Africa 2018.”
Chen and Nord are of the position that “this rapid growth in trade and project financing has served both Africa and China well. For Africa, trade has boosted economic development in many countries, and the financing of infrastructure projects, for which little concessional financing is available, has helped address crucial bottlenecks to industrial development and structural transformation. For China, while trade with Africa remains a small part of its total foreign trade, many of its project loans are tied to Chinese suppliers, and, as a result, about a quarter of all Chinese engineering contracts worldwide by 2013 on a stock basis went to sub-Saharan Africa, with most of these contracts being awarded in energy (hydropower) and transport (roads, railways, ports, or aviation).
“The relationship between Africa and China is also characterised by assistance to Africa by China in form of Aid. Africa has been a major recipient of Chinese aid with seven of the top 10 recipients of all-out concessional aid by China in Africa.
According to Brookings Institution, between 2000 and 2012, China funded 1,666 official assistance projects in 51 African countries, which accounted for 69 percent of all Chinese public and private projects.
The Africa-China relationship has not been one of fairy tale, in spite of the gains that have come with it. It has not been without cause for concern. There are reports of what Xiangming Chen and Garth Myers sum up as “highly negative outcomes of Chinese investments”. In Zambia, in particular, they cite “low wages, poor working conditions, horrible health…”
“Again, there are two sides to the issue of Chinese Aid to Africa. While one school sees China’s aid and development financing as filling the void left by the West and promoting the development of African countries, helping to take care of large projects with long-term payback period which traditional donors are not keen to support, the other side argues that “these short-term benefits should not form a cover-up for the potential long-term negative consequences associated with neglecting issues of governance, fairness and sustainability. For example, when the “tied aid” is linked to the profitability of Chinese companies, it becomes questionable whether China would prioritise Africa’s interests or its own.”
Indeed, there are governance questions about the manner of disbursement of Chinese aid in Africa, just as it is with foreign aid generally. One of the concerns, according to Yun Sun is that “since China’s top economic interest is Africa’s natural resources, aid decisions are inevitably skewed toward resource-rich countries while others receive less favorable consideration. This practice is problematic in that many of the resource-rich African countries with which China works also suffer from serious political problems, such as authoritarianism, poor governance, and corruption. When the Ministry of Commerce pursues economic gains and associates aid projects with resource extraction, it uses aid packages to promote business relations. This directly contributes to the negative perception that China is pouring aid, funding, and infrastructure projects to prop up corrupt governments in exchange for natural resources.”
In spite of the apparent gains and economic development that China’s increased presence in Africa has triggered, or perhaps because of it, the West has been concerned. But rather than the concerns be expressed around the fear that there is an obvious move from ‘Washington Consensus’ towards ‘Beijing Consensus’, rather it is presented as one about the interests of Africa. But Professor Deborah Bräutigam argues that the concerns are generally misplaced. On the allegation of predatory lending by China, she cites research findings, one being the work of Scholars at Boston University and Johns Hopkins University who have been assembling databases of Chinese loans provided since 2000. It was found that ‘China had lent at least $95.5 billion between 2000 and 2015’ to Africa, which is a lot over such a short period, it was found “by and large, the Chinese loans in our database were performing a useful service: financing Africa’s serious infrastructure gap. On a continent where over 600 million Africans have no access to electricity, 40 percent of the Chinese loans paid for power generation and transmission. Another 30 percent went to modernizing Africa’s crumbling transport infrastructure. Some of these were no doubt pork barrel projects and white elephants: airports with few passengers, or bridges to nowhere…Yet on the whole, power and transport are investments that boost economic growth. And we found that Chinese loans generally have comparatively low interest rates and long repayment periods.”
China has also been accused of land grab in Africa. This became a particularly widespread concern with the spate of reports in the Western media. Again, Prof. Deborah Bräutigam’s findings do not agree with the apprehension. “Our team at the International Food Policy Research Institute and at Johns Hopkins University collected a database of 57 cases where Chinese firms (or the government) were alleged to have acquired or negotiated large (over 500 hectare) amounts of African farmland. If all of these media reports had been real news, this would have amounted to a very alarming 6 million hectares — 1 percent of all the farmland in Africa. We spent three years tracking down every single case. We travelled from Madagascar to Mozambique, Zimbabwe to Zambia. We confirmed that nearly a third of these stories, including the three above, were literally false. In the remaining cases, we found real Chinese investments. But the total amount of land actually acquired by Chinese firms was only about 240,000 hectares: 4 percent of the reported amount. The stories of large-scale land grabbing and Chinese peasants being shipped to Africa to grow food for China turned out to be mostly myths. As researchers at the Center for International Forestry Research concluded after their own rigorous research, ‘China is not a dominant investor in plantation agriculture in Africa, in contrast to how it is often portrayed.’ We found a story of globalization, not colonization; a story of African agency, rather than Chinese rapacity.”
The Africa-China relationship has not been one of fairy tale, in spite of the gains that have come with it. It has not been without cause for concern. There are reports of what Xiangming Chen and Garth Myers sum up as “highly negative outcomes of Chinese investments”. In Zambia, in particular, they cite “low wages, poor working conditions, horrible health and safety conditions, exacerbating inequalities, importation of low-skilled workers and a failure to build backward and forward linkages in Zambia’s economic interest” as drawback to the Africa-China relations.
There have been complaints about dumping of products by Chinese companies who have the benefit of local subsidy and cheaper cost of production as aid in delivering cheap products with which they flood the markets in Africa. Apart from being detrimental to local manufacturing, it also worsens the unemployment situation in Africa. Beyond that is the matter of poor quality Chinese products and knock-off items which are below standard and cannot be exported to Europe and America but are brought into Africa thus short-changing consumers in the continent.
Indeed, there are challenges that have come with increased engagement on the part of the Chinese with Africa. There is the place of low-level Chinese workers brought in as technical expatriates to take the place of locals, but this is not peculiar to the Chinese companies in Africa.
There is no clear-cut way to assessing the Africa-China affair, but given evidence of China’s level of engagement in only such as short period and the direct impact it is making in the development of infrastructure, the balance does appear to be more in the affirmative.
Relative to its early years of providing official foreign aid to Africa almost half a century ago, China now has a much more diversified presence and influence in Africa through both government and private channels, or their combination. In helping Africa set up special economic zones, China has transplanted its relatively successful developmental strategy with market-based decisions and investment by its private companies in these zones. Retaining an old focus on infrastructure, China has scaled it up by rehabilitating the 840-mile Benguela railway line that now connects Angola’s Atlantic coast with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. This kind of large-scale infrastructure, which would not have been built without China, has won it some praises.
The fact that Western powers and institutions are being forced to take a second look at their relations with Africa, and find means for better partnership, in view of increasing Chinese engagement, is enough gain for Africa. Both China and the United States of America now host African heads of state to summits from time to time. Even if it is yet to hold under President Trump…
In Nigeria, China is not only a major trading partner, providing funding for a number of infrastructure projects from roads, airports renovation, as well as the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the railway system, apart from partnering with the Lagos State government on the Lekki Free Trade Zone and light rail projects. It has increased its oil imports from Nigeria, as well as investment in the sector, both upstream and downstream, having signed an agreement to construct a refinery at a time.
But the latest major development in the Nigeria-China bilateral engagement is the historic Currency Swap Deal entered into by both countries, following President Buhari’s visit to China in April 2016. The deal valued at U.S. $2.5 billion is aimed at easing foreign exchange liquidity, reducing dollar dependency for transactions involving Nigerians and the Chinese, providing naira liquidity to Chinese businesses and renmibi liquidity to Nigerian businesses. The extent to which the currency swap, which has now kicked off, will hasten a move in the direction of greater diversification of foreign reserves, which has been on the cards for a while, is one we have to wait to see.
The question of China’s cosy relationship with some African countries, irrespective of human rights abuse and weak democratic credentials, has been a recurring question, especially with Sudan, when the world was counting on China to help with the resolution of the crisis in Darfur and act as a responsible power. Even though China itself is high on the rhetoric of peace, citing it as a central feature in its official presentation of its purpose in international affairs even proceeding to place peace-orientation as “the first and foremost characteristic of China-Africa relations” at the same time, it must be noted that non-intervention is the cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy.
Of late, China has been paying more attention to finding its place in the peace and security architecture of Africa, aligning itself more with the multilateral vehicles of the United Nations and African Union, while taking bit roles in some peace-keeping missions in different conflict regions in Africa, as it seeks to enhance its role as a more engaged actor in the international arena.
China is often lambasted as a nefarious actor in its African dealings, but the evidence tells a more complicated story. Chinese loans are powering Africa, and Chinese firms are creating jobs. China’s agricultural investment is far more modest than reported and welcomed by some Africans. China may boost Africa’s economic transformation, or they may get it wrong — just as American development efforts often go awry.
The fact that Western powers and institutions are being forced to take a second look at their relations with Africa, and find means for better partnership, in view of increasing Chinese engagement, is enough gain for Africa. Both China and the United States of America now host African heads of state to summits from time to time. Even if it is yet to hold under President Trump, he hosted African leaders to a working luncheon in September 2017, while they were there for the United Nations meeting, even if the U.S. approach towards Africa seems less embracing and largely unclear under the Trump Administration.
The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) set up by Africa and China as a platform “to give teeth to the new strategic partnership that will take into consideration political equality and mutual trust, economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchanges” has just concluded the Seventh Forum in Beijing, China later in 2018 to outlining China’s agenda for engagement with Africa between now and 2021.
To some, China’s intentions in Africa may not be “completely altruistic, they are also not completely exploitative” but one of mutual reinforcement, even if both parties might not be completely satisfied. But that is the nature of international relations. It is all about interests, which are dynamic in form and content, with trade-offs always a part of the bargain. It is up to each party to ensure that its interests are secured and find the means to maximise benefits from the relationship. Africa-China relations leans more in the direction of a partnership with prospects than one of colonialism.
Whatever the case, to Stephen Chan, “…it must be stressed that Western alarm about the Chinese purchase of so much economic influence in the continent is born of very demeaning analysis. Firstly, the influence was literally purchased. China did not forcibly colonise Africa as Europe had done. China did not support Apartheid for the sake of mineral expropriation as the US had done. Above all, Africa was not some innocent ‘dumb black continent’ that could not make choices for itself and for its own advantage. China had to often to negotiate hard for its entry-points to Africa.”