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Between the ‘bulldozer’ and beneficent narratives: China-Africa relations


This article is a continuation of the series on three big powers’ (China, America and Russia’s) relations with Africa. The focus of this article is on China-Africa relations. There are two contending perspectives on China’s relations with Africa. One perspective views China as a nation intent on “bulldozing” its way in Africa, plundering Africa’s resources, trapping African countries in debt, and encouraging the settlement of Chinese migrants in the region.

The other perspective views China’s increased engagement with Africa is largely beneficent terms, arguing, in particular, that its renewed engagement was initially driven in part by necessity —the need to revive the moribund projects built and handed over by China in the 1960s and 1970s. This warranted the return of China in the 1980s not only to resuscitate those projects but also to manage some of the new projects built by China since then, thus, laying the foundation for China’s expanded engagement in Africa today. Proponents of this view also note that the genesis of China’s enhanced economic engagement harks back to then-President Jiang Zemin’s exhortation that China should “Go abroad”, which drew its inspiration from Deng Xiaoping’s slogan of “to get rich is glorious”. There is an implicit assumption that by going global, in particular, supporting Africa, a region that other powers had virtually abandoned, China is doing good. African leaders divide along these two perspectives as well.

The Chinese leaders, on their part, cast relations with Africa countries in terms of “win-win cooperation” and “mutual beneficial cooperation”. Of course, the story of China’s relations with African countries is more complicated than these two perspectives would allow.


China -Africa relations can be divided broadly into three phases: 1956-1978; 1979-1999; and 2000 to the present. Each of these phases highlighted China’s particular preoccupation in each era. In the first phase, China placed emphasis on showing solidarity with mainly the socialist-oriented African countries and seeking international recognition for the Peoples Republic. With the help of African countries, China was admitted to the United Nations in 1971. During this period, the humble origins and the high-level commitments of China’s support for African development were respectively manifested in the completion of two aid projects in Africa: the construction of a cigarette and match factory in Guinea in 1964, and the construction of the 1,860km long TAZARA (Tanzania-Zambia Railways) that began in 1970 and was completed in 1975. TAZARA was China’s first marquee project in Africa. China’s aid rose from an initial sum of US$428million in 1956-1966 to US$1.9billion for 29 African countries in the period 1970-1977.

The second phase began with the implementation of China’s domestic economic reforms approved at the third plenum of the eleventh Communist Party Congress in December 1978. This period coincided, on the African side, with the “lost decades for development”, which, however, led to major economic reforms in the region. China perceived investment opportunities brought by these reforms in Africa, leading to the deepening of economic ties with the region, while intensifying efforts to win recognition from more African countries for the Peoples Republic. China undertook a major review of its economic cooperation with Africa, allowing Chinese experts to manage the new projects built in Africa, linking aid to the execution of business projects, and using both barter trade and resources-for-investments or loans arrangements. The latter feature of China’s economic engagement has proved controversial, in as much as it fed into the narrative of China’s interest in Africa is driven mainly by the region’s rich natural resource endowment.

The third phase has been characterised by deepening of relations with Africa highlighted by the inception of the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, by the launching of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, and by the expansion of military cooperation. FOCAC has become the forum of choice not only for a periodic high-level dialogue between Chinese and African leaders and their senior officials but also for China to announce its triennial pledges of cooperation. As China’s cooperation with African countries has expanded, not only have several criticisms been levelled against China but the nature of those criticisms has also evolved over time. These criticisms pose challenges to the evolution of China-Africa relations. I conclude this piece by examining three of such criticisms currently leveled against China’s conduct in Africa.

China’s economic cooperation with Africa encompasses aid, loans, investment and trade. This is reflected in the composition of pledges of financial assistance announced in the two recent FOCAC Summits in 2015 and 2018. The $60billion pledged at 2015FOCAC consisted of$35 billion for concessional loans; $20 billion for commercial financing; and $5billion for grants and zero-interest loans. The $60 billion pledged in 2018 consisted of $20 bn credit lines; $15bn for aid and interest loans; $10bn for development financing; $10bn for investments; and $5bn for financing imports.

The huge amount of loans provided for projects in some African countries relative to their GDP or government revenue has, however, resulted in the criticism of China pursuing a “debt-trap diplomacy”. That narrative has been amplified, for example, by the clauses relating to arbitration of disputes and default in the loan agreement for construction of Kenya Standard Gauge Railway from Mombasa to Nairobi. Under the agreement signed in May 2014, the government waived its sovereign “right of immunity’ on seizure of any asset, if Kenya defaults. The fact that China took over the Sri Lanka port of Hambantota and the Pakistan port of Gwadar in response to the debt default by those two countries has heightened fears that similar fate might befall debt-defaulting African countries. It is hoped that the introduction of the debt sustainability policy framework by China might obviate this criticism in the future, as that will enable China to determine whether an African country can service its debt without recourse to asset seizure. African countries must also show greater discernment in their borrowing practices.

The second major criticism relates to the natural resources- for- investment arrangements between China and several African countries, for example the oil-for-loans by Angola, and alumina-for- loans by Guinea. Many African countries seem to be moving away from these arrangements. Yet it helps to remember that China itself had similar deals with Japan as recently as 1978 –when China signed with Japan resources-for-capital agreements under which China supplied oil and coal to Japan in exchange for Japan’s financing of industrial plants and offering technology transfer. The reasons that Africa countries have derived sub-optimal outcomes from these arrangements include their weak negotiating capacity, lack of detailed cost-benefit analysis, and poor articulation of their other ancillary needs as part of the loan or investment agreements.

The third major criticism relates to the use of Chinese workers in the growing portfolio of projects in Africa. This criticism will most likely intensify as the implementation of BRI accelerates. BRI is a transcontinental development project with two components — The Silk Road Economic Belt and The Maritime Silk Road – aimed at improving land, rail and sea connectivity among African, Asian and European countries. African Union and nearly four dozen African countries have signed a Memorandum of Understanding on BRI. The Mombasa-Nairobi Railway and the Addis Ababa-Djibouti electric Railways are regarded as part of BRI projects.

The Maritime Silk Road will bring together a network of ports from the South China Sea to Africa constructed or operated by Chinese enterprises. How China handles the issue of Chinese workers in the portfolio of BRI projects will define how China’s involvement in Africa will be perceived by African policymakers, press and people. In handling this issue, it helps to make a distinction between Chinese workers (non-experts) and experts. While China must necessarily deploy its experts to facilitate the construction of its projects in Africa, any effort to substitute Chinese workers for local workers will fan and deepen popular resentment towards China and risks undermining the historical goodwill that China has enjoyed in Africa compared to the former “colonial masters”. China has a choice in the conduct of its affairs in Africa: it can engage by “badao”, the way of the hegemon, or “wang do”, the kingly or righteous way.

Otobo is a non-resident senior fellow at the Global Governance Institute, Brussels, Belgium and author of Africa in Transition—A New Way of Looking at Progress in the Region.


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