These past 15 years have seen China straddle itself throughout the vast expanse of the African region, dotting the continent with trade deals that have pushed bilateral trade upwards of $200 billion, significantly more than Africa’s economic cooperation with the US or the EU. Beijing’s fever has largely been driven by the country’s appetite for natural resources to fuel its booming economy and sustain the rapid pace of industrialization, while Africa, desperate for aid and new infrastructure, has been more than happy to jump on board. According to the Chinese Communist Party, the Africa policy “is rooted in development and […] mutually beneficial cooperation.” However, in reality China’s heavy handed investment approach, which lacks any clauses for conditionality such as respect for human rights, means that Beijing is often doing business with some of Africa’s most unsavory dictators, while the supposed benefits from Chinese investment rarely trickles its way down to the population.
China is the second largest oil consumer in the world, behind the United States, and Africa currently provides 23% of China’s crude imports. In return, The China Development Bank “has granted more loans to Africa than the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank combined over the past six years”, a clear indication that China is looking to become a dominant economic force on the continent. By offering “resource-backed development loans to oil and mineral rich nations like Angola, and [developing] special trade and economic cooperation zones in several states, including Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Zambia,” China was able to acquire favorable conditions for the extraction of resources. Much of China’s funding comes in the form of infrastructure financing for roads, railways, ports and airports, with Beijing announcing that it will provide $1 trillion in financing to Africa by 2025. With this vision in mind, China Railway Construction Corp, a state owned rail company, recently signed infrastructure contracts worth $5.5 billion, which will include an intercity rail line in Nigeria and a real estate project in Zimbabwe.
But observers should be weary of China’s increasingly dominant position in Africa and seek to look past the headline-grabbing figures. While the Africa-China romance is portrayed as a “win-win” situation for both sides, in reality, Chinese investments largely benefit China herself. While promised to create jobs for the local population and deliver sustainable development, Chinese projects “often benefit governments more than local people”. It is often Chinese workers themselves building the projects – a fact that explains the one million strong Chinese community residing in Africa. As a result, tensions between Chinese workers and the jobless local population have skyrocketed. Zambia, Senegal, Namibia, Malawi and Tanzania are just some of the countries that have highlighted growing problems working with the Chinese, pointing to the disrespect for labor standards and environmental protection shown by these foreign workers.
Most ordinary Africans get little say in where the investment goes and whom it benefits. Indeed, Western powers point to the lack of strings attached to China’s financial assistance, allowing it to freely enter into dubious relationships with Africa’s high and mighty dictators with little regard for democratic development or respect for human rights. As for Africa’s leaders, China’s policy of non-interference mean that they win over large bags of cash and favors, but with none of the conditions that Western governments demand of them. It therefore comes as no surprise that a US cable from Nigeria coined China, “as a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor”.
Although China’s commitment to the region has largely been limited to pursuing economic goals, recent activities point to a military pivot in terms of Beijing’s priorities. The country’s most recent target is Djibouti, a bilateral relationship that culminated in the signing of a security and defense agreement, which paved the way for the start of discussions over installing a permanent Chinese naval military base. President Ismail Omar Guelleh, the country’s leader for the past 16 years, announced in May that while negotiations are still ongoing, Beijing’s presence would be “welcome”. The sticking point is that Djibouti, a small but strategic nation in the Horn of Africa is already host to US’ only military base in the region, Camp Lemonnier, home to some 6,000 troops and the main hub for conducting drone strikes in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Washington pays $63 million for the camp’s lease along with an extra $7 million in development aid, an important sum for one of Africa’s poorest countries.
In spite of Washington’s significant strategic interests in Djibouti, Beijing’s financial support has enabled Guelleh to strengthen his position within the country’s political context. The government sold to China Merchant Holding, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, a large stake in the country’s strategic port that was under the management of an opposition figure. At the same time, Guelleh has a bad reputation for his multiple human rights abuses causing some US officials to raise concerns that the strongman is becoming less democratic. Given China’s reputation for reeling in authoritarian leaders with promises of funds and “stroking individual egos”, Washington should view China’s expansionist activities with caution.
Beijing is pursuing its economic and security ambitions with little regard for local populations and social and environmental safeguards. Chinese investment comes hand in hand with controversial business practices as corrupt African dictators reap the benefits of partnerships, leaving local populations angered over projects that never come to fruition. But as Africa begins to garner attention for its potential as an economic powerhouse, it is key that political reforms follow in the wake of economic development.
Failing to undergo these critical steps could result in an Africa that has been wined and dined to win over its wealthy resources, but has nothing to show in terms of democratic consolidation.
Photo credit: www.chinaafricap