At the September 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing, African Union Chairperson and Rwandan President Paul Kagame lauded the Chinese aid and investment strategy in Africa as a source of “deep transformation”. Kagame argued that the cooperation between China and Africa is based on mutual respect and is for the benefit of both partners. This sentiment is perhaps shared by most African heads of states and governments if their attendance of the summit is anything to go by.

However, despite the African leadership’s embrace of China as a valued partner, the view that Beijing is a “predatory” actor in Africa, attempting to recolonise the continent is also ubiquitous in foreign policy circles, media narratives and academia.

Africa sees China differently than the West

The China-Africa relationship is currently being interpreted through two diametrically opposed perceptions.

The first of the two is a Sino-phobic one, mostly adopted in the West. For instance, in a recent policy briefing at the Heritage Foundation, US National Security Adviser John Bolton criticised China’s actions in Africa and claimed the continent has fallen victim to Beijing’s new colonialism. “China uses bribes, opaque agreements, and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands,” Bolton said.

“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.”

Just like the US, other western governments, such as the UK and France, also 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 South Sudan and Sudan, and a supporter of despots in African countries, such as Gabon. Moreover, they perceive China as a resource and energy-hungry giant, an exploiter of corrupt and incompetent governments, a trade opportunist, and a massive polluter of the African environment.

The second and opposing perception of the partnership between Beijing and Africa is a pro-China one. This view is adopted mostly in Africa.

According to the proponents of this narrative, China is a saviour – a trustworthy ally of Africa. They view China, a country that does not have a history of colonial aspirations in Africa, as a partner which could provide much-needed funding without any strings attached. They also believe Beijing understands and respects Africa’s priorities.

Moreover, China has a reputation among African countries for being an actor that respects other cultures and states. This view is widely held by many African heads of state. 

Much of the academic literature on the China-Africa partnership unjustifiably perpetuates the Sino-phobic narrative. The media also wrongly portrays China as a predatory actor in Africa. For instance, while it is widely reported that China invests more in the extractive industry than in other sectors, the fact that the extractive industry amounts only to one-third of the total Chinese investment in Africa is barely mentioned. 

The other two-thirds of China’s investment in Africa is in infrastructure, construction, electricity production, manufacturing and finance. In fact, compared with the US and other developed countries, China’s share in extractive investments in Africa, in the form of mining, for example, is lower.

Africa is not a victim of Chinese ‘colonisation’

The Sino-phobic narrative championed by the West portrays African nations as passive collaborators, as mere victims of a second “colonisation” wave. However, this is not the case.

Africans are well aware of the shortcomings of Chinese assistance and business in Africa – from an imbalance in trade to hefty debt, from poor quality goods to corrupt practices. Africans also know that many Chinese investors lack considerations of sustainability and that some business dealings are in some instances incompatible with the national interests of African countries. Furthermore, Africans recognise that Chinese businesses rarely fight corrupt practices and seek to avoid accountability.  

Africans expect China to take some responsibility for some of these shortcomings, but also acknowledge that the weaknesses of African regulatory and enforcement mechanisms, as well as self-serving governments, are the main culprits. They know that Chinese companies, like many others, exploit the weaknesses of African states for their advantage. They believe it is their own governments, and not China, that need to make sure Africa is not exploited. 

As a result, Africans see the Western criticisms of the China-Africa cooperation with serious reservations. At the FOCAC meeting in September, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa summarised the African position by saying that Africa “refutes the view that a new colonialism is taking hold in Africa as our detractors would have us believe.”

Why Africa loves China 

The debt trap is not an inevitable outcome of loans: As President Kagame said, the outcome “depends on us Africans”. The key factor that determines the success of Chinese loans to Africa is whether or not African governments use such loans for productive capital investment. For these investments to succeed, African governments need to be accountable to the people of Africa. This is not the responsibility of China or any other non-African country, for that matter; rather it is Africans who are responsible to ensure accountability. 

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 of peacekeeping; and an alternative development model. 

First, China’s unconditional cooperation has allowed African governments to enjoy access to finance, expertise and development aid. In 2016, the trade between China and Africa reached $128bn, a drastic surge from $1bn in 1980.

At FOCAC in Beijing this year, China offered $60bn for development financing until 2021. While the financial crises in the US and EU limited their investments in Africa, China committed to investing more in the continent.

Chinese soft loans have enabled many African governments to avoid pressure from global governance institutions such as IMF and World Bank to meet Western norms of accountability and conditionality related to political and economic reforms, such as the infamous structural adjustment that does not always serve the interest of Africans.

Second, China has aided African governments to meet their people’s rapidly growing demands for services and infrastructure more quickly. Many people in Africa are now used to quick delivery of services – such as transportation, education, health and telecommunication – by Chinese companies. This has created, and will continue to create, more appetite for Chinese business in Africa.

Third, China is now also engaged in peace and security projects in Africa. Chinese troops participate in eight UN peacekeeping missions of which five are in Africa. Moreover, China is the second largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping missions and it also contributed funding to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the IGAD South Sudan mediation. 

Fourth, China’s history of fast and successful economic growth is a model from which many lessons could be learned in Africa. China’s capacity to ensure policy sovereignty 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 has achieved many of the Millennium Development Goals. 

Africans should take a page from China’s playbook on development and sovereignty. They can keep their home in order and also make the best out of the competition 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.


* This article was originally published on Al-Jazeera on Jan. 6, 2019.

Dr. Mehari Taddele Maru, who is International Consultant on African Union affairs and Research Fellow at the NATO Defence College.

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