African Opportunities in China-Africa Relations

Recent Features

Features | Diplomacy | East Asia

African Opportunities in China-Africa Relations

African countries have the agency to use relations with China to their own advantage. Whether African leaders will use their power to benefit their people is another question.

African Opportunities in China-Africa Relations

Chinese President Xi Jinping, front center, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, front third from left, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, second left, Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbé, left, and other African leaders walk together after a group photo session during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) 2018 Beijing Summit in Beijing, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018.

Credit: How Hwee Young/Pool Photo via AP

In a world order where a global struggle for power between East and West is underway, Africans again find themselves at the center of the whirlwind war for supremacy that has existed for the last century. On the African continent, the struggle between East and West for resources and diplomatic influence has reached an important height. The dark clouds that this tussle portends have left many Africans wondering what the outcome for the continent will be when the clouds clear.

A look into China-Africa relations can shed light on the ways African leaders are and could potentially be using their relationships to the advantage of their own peoples.

China and “Africa”?

However, using the term “China-Africa” to refer to China’s engagement with all 54 African countries may not be entirely helpful, as countries on the continent exist at various levels of development. Ascribing the problems of some countries to the whole continent could lead to unsatisfactory generalizations. The idea that China-Africa relations exist implies political and economic homogeneity across the continent, which is far from the truth.

Even within a single country, different political parties will have variations in their policy orientation toward China. For example, Kweku Ampiah notes that the National Democratic Congress of Ghana, a social democratic party, will have different policies with regards to China than the New Patriotic Party, a center-right and liberal-conservative party. To study the relationship between a country (China) and a whole continent (Africa) is therefore bound to produce varied results. African countries will naturally merge and deviate from each other in their interactions with China.

It is within this context that Sino-African relations should be interrogated. On the one hand, China’s increased engagement with the continent is potentially worrying as some of the interactions mirror colonial-era extractive relations, where African countries sell raw materials at cheap prices to China for production. On the other hand, these relations are quite distinct from colonial-era interactions, as the Chinese government is not coercing African governments into anything, and it has also taken an interest in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia that do not have any raw materials to sell. This is coupled with the fact that many Chinese projects on the continent are geared toward infrastructure like ports, though it could also be argued that many of these projects are oriented toward commodity trade with China.

These circumstances provide an interesting opportunity for researchers to explore these relationships, and for African bureaucrats to put Africa’s political and economic needs first. The worries about China’s neocolonial interests in Africa expressed by Western countries, coupled with China’s biting criticism of the exploitative nature of Western ties with African countries, are akin to the bickering of two siblings over the affairs of a younger one. These two extreme opposing views imply that Africa has no independence of thought or agency, and is simply a receptor of both Chinese and Western actions. This could not be farther from the truth, as close interrogation of many of these interactions will show that African initiative has been present and will continue to be so.

The real issue, however, is whether the decisions being made at the highest echelons of African political economy reflect the needs and desires of regular Africans.

The ‘D’ Word: ‘Debt-Trap Diplomacy’

One of the most prominent worries concerning the rise of China-Africa relations is the idea that China is using “debt-trap diplomacy” to impoverish African countries. However, history shows that debt has been a central aspect of economic growth in most developed countries. Debt is therefore neutral, and its consequences are wholly dependent on how it is used. Gregory Smith’s “Where Credit is Due” shows how borrowing can catalyze large-scale economic growth in African nations provided that the money is used for productive purposes. Debt is therefore less the issue than how it is being utilized.

A good example is Zambia’s current debt crisis. Arve Ofstad and Elling Tjønneland have explored the ways Zambia’s fiscal behavior was worsened by Chinese lending. Since 2012, China has been Zambia’s biggest single creditor, with overall debt reaching almost 40 percent of Zambia’s GDP in that year (Zambia’s debt now stands at around 70 percent of its GDP). Although some Chinese loans to Zambia were interest-free grants, other loans were issued at market rates. Recent developments – including a hydropower plant that is now seemingly owned by the Chinese government, since Zambia has not been able to pay back the loan – are increasingly worrying. Indeed, these facts alone might convince an observer to claim that the Chinese government is trying to trap Zambia and use its debts to China as political leverage.

However, Ofstad and Tjønneland show that beyond the seemingly predatory practices of Chinese lenders is a very strong track record of Zambian initiative. Although Zambia had all its debts cancelled in 2005 through the Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative, it has rapidly accumulated more debt since that time, not just from China but also from other countries and lenders. In fact, Zambia’s most recent debt reveal showed that a significant amount of its debt is owed to market-based entities, which, as Ferdinando Cinotto noted, tend to have higher interest rates. These commercial loans have more of a hold on Zambia’s economy than the Chinese loans do.

The full terms of many of these loans are not known to the public. Regardless of the opacity of these loan agreements, Zambian officials have the responsibility to negotiate good terms for their own people. The bulk of the responsibility lies with the Zambian government to effectively harness the full potential of these loans and forge forward-looking paths for the nation by ensuring economic growth continues to rise. The loans should therefore be deployed in such a manner that will help trigger the economy. In other words, if Zambia has fallen into a debt trap, Zambian leaders – and not China – bear the largest share of accountability.

Africa, the BRI, and ‘Predatory’ Chinese Lending

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a global infrastructure project that seeks to connect China to neighboring Asian countries and Europe through Africa. Although Africa was at first marginal to the initiative, the BRI now plays a heavy role in Chinese foreign policy on the continent. Even though the initiative provides opportunities for African countries to develop infrastructure, it is interesting to note that China finances this infrastructure in the form of loans to African countries. This could inflame worries that China is trying to gain political and economic leverage over these countries. For example, some authors have noted that Djibouti – a key part of the BRI – is highly indebted to China, with a combined debt-to-GDP ratio of about 80 percent in the last two years, and that China is Djibouti’s top foreign direct investor. Critics go further to argue that this debt situation potentially provides the Chinese government with more leverage over Djibouti’s government.

However, as with the Zambian case, the actions of Djibouti’s leaders are central to better understanding this situation. Cobus van Staden, Chris Alden, and Yu-Shan Wu point to the workings of domestic politics as evidence of elite capitalization on these issues. BRI projects have been used as leverage to fuel domestic politics in Djibouti and other countries. African nations are therefore active participants in these interactions, and they have the capacity to chart their own political and economic paths.

This does not completely exempt China from responsibility, as the authors note that China also faces reputational risks concerning African indebtedness. Beijing will have to “tread carefully” so that it avoids strong African dissent, which previously accompanied high indebtedness to Western donors. For the authors, however, the debt-trap diplomacy discourse “overestimates China’s agency and underestimates that of African countries” and fails to fully recognize the fact that African countries have access to other sources of financing other than Chinese lending. For example, Kenya’s rising debt was funded both by China and by multilateral lenders like the World Bank. A broader perspective is therefore needed to understand and explain Chinese lending to African countries. More importantly, the consequences of this debt will depend mostly on the borrowing countries themselves.

The Power of Numbers: Collective Action Networks and Unequal International Relations

Another avenue where African initiative is expressed in the global sphere is through collective action or common position networks as exemplified by the African Union and the Permanent Representative Committee. Considering Africa’s usually peripheral position in global organizations, collective action has helped assert the agency of the member countries.

Siphamandla Zondi analyzes these collective action networks and shows how “common positions” act as the currency of African foreign policy, meaning that Africa is able to exert its will most prominently when all 54 countries act together. Of course, problems quickly arise, as it may be difficult to balance the sometimes competing interests of so many countries. Africa is not a homogeneous entity, but rather, one that is incredibly diverse in interests, goals, and developmental achievement; it would be difficult to effectively summarize the needs of so many entities into one. However, Zondi notes that this may have to be done because of the power imbalances that persist in the global world order. The benefit of common position networks is that the shared concerns and interests of member countries are concretized and can be used to bolster their negotiating positions.

Although there is strong evidence of African initiative in all China-Africa relations, there are also inequalities between the two actors and the realities of unequal Sino-African relations should not be ignored. To solve this, African nations could use economic regional blocs like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Commission (EAC) to form even stronger negotiation strategies that will benefit the member countries. In negotiations, China, being a comparatively organized, homogeneous single entity, stands to benefit more from these relations. African leaders must therefore pull together and form a united front that can circumvent the inequalities that come from smaller states negotiating with much larger countries like China.

A united cultural front may also benefit China-Africa relations. For example, the number of Confucius Institutes on the continent, which are established to make the Chinese people better understood by Africans, has grown over the years. Although Africa is incredibly culturally diverse, the ability to share unifying aspects of African cultures could improve local interactions between Chinese and African peoples as these interactions grow. Diversity is usually a strength if managed well, and African nations have the opportunity to show the rest of the world how to effectively balance the diversity of thought across the continent with the singularity of their common positions.

Strategic Silver Linings

Effective negotiation tactics and strong development strategies are central to ensuring Africa gains from the new international order. Sophie Harman and William Brown note that the “new scramble for Africa” opens up avenues for African states to capitalize on the opportunities presented by this competition and thereby pursue their own interests. African leaders must make firm, forward-looking decisions and take responsibility for their countries’ growth. China’s interest in Africa is a good opportunity for African nations to promote economic development and lift people out of poverty, and Folashade Soule outlines strategies for African governments to harness this new advantage.

Rwanda appears to have benefited from these new relations, as can be gleaned from its thriving economy. It has employed a strategic and calculated foreign policy to utilize both Chinese lending and lending from other multilateral sources in order to boost its economy. It is very clear that African nations have the capacity to handle China-Africa relations in ways that will benefit Africa, and handled properly, this could prove incredibly beneficial to the African peoples. As Western nations begin to offer alternative funding solutions to Chinese lending for infrastructure projects, the opportunities for economic growth are promising. With Rwanda’s experience in view, it seems that beyond the clouds there is a sun out there for those who are looking for it. Maybe African leaders should be making hay.