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December 15, 2018

CAVINCE: Difficulties remain despite progress in China-Africa relations

China's President Xi Jinping looks on during a meeting with Laos' Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (not seen) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, December 1, 2016. /REUTERS
China's President Xi Jinping looks on during a meeting with Laos' Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith (not seen) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, December 1, 2016. /REUTERS

At the end of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation in Beijing, over 50 African heads of state and government came out smiling after President Xi Jinping’s announcement of $60 billion financing towards economic rejuvenation of African states.

The high-level meeting was indeed a culmination of decades’ long efforts by China to court African countries. Guided by mutual interest and executed within the win-win paradigm; the two entities have broadened and deepened their engagement on a number of fronts.

For nearly a decade now, China has been Africa’s largest trade partner. It is as well Africa’s top infrastructure financier, and top donor with impressive foreign direct investment portfolio.

UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization pegs the number of African students in China at 50, 0000, up from 2,000 in 2003; making China the second most popular destination after France. In addition, over one million Chinese are estimated to live and work in Africa.  

Diplomatically, Beijing maintains healthy ties with all members of the African Union; except eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), which still recognizes Taiwan as an independent country.

Besides opening its first overseas military base in Djibouti, China has actively contributed peacekeepers to Africa’s trouble spots while also giving a hand in the fight against terrorism and piracy in the continent.

Yet, despite such immense progress in relations, there are a number of pitfalls that could easily derail China-Africa partnership and potentially roll back gains made.

The first concerns fears of unsustainable debt levels as a result of China’s strategic financial generosity towards African countries; some of which exhibit legendary appetite for loans. Chinese money has, for instance, been very visible in Africa’s infrastructure, for a good reason. The African Development Bank estimates the continent runs an annual deficit of $170 billion in infrastructure funding. 

African countries have therefore been forced to source funds from development partners including China. However, the flexibility and responsiveness of China in advancing loans, has made it easy for many countries to drench their economies with debts whose repayments could prove a tall order. 

The second pitfall touches on corruption and political expediency. Flashy infrastructure projects in Africa have been avenues of siphoning public resources to pad the pockets of state officials.

According to a recent McKinsey report, 87 per cent of Chinese enterprises in Africa reported to have bribed state officials to secure contracts. The continent has subsequently seen mushrooming of ‘vanity projects’, aimed at scoring political agenda; rather than meaningful and sustainable socioeconomic transformation.

The third flashpoint relates to the growing pushback by African and Chinese nationals, who want respective governments to demonstrate utility of arising projects. Although on its way to eliminating extreme poverty by 2020, China’s citizens are questioning the veracity of the country’s unrivalled generosity towards Africa yet development challenges remain plenty at home. In Africa, there is widespread fear that indebtedness to China could lead to seizure of public assets, erosion of sovereignty and crippling repayment periods.

What then?

Despite these pitfalls, China and Africa still have room to re-examine the engagement metrics towards a truly win-win cooperation. China can offer Africa the much needed finances, technology and best practices for inclusive and sustainable development.

On the other hand, Africa is home to huge deposits of natural resources, markets and human capital that could further Chinese industrial revolution.

For China, the old philosophy of cat’s colour and the mice may no longer suffice. Indebting African economies will only create volatilities that run counter to the very interest it is pursuing in Africa. That also holds true when fueling corruption and disregard to rule of law in the continent.

Over and above the aggressive governmental diplomacy that Beijing has perfected in Africa, there is need for a more robust public diplomacy that should bring on board the over 90 per cent private Chinese enterprises in Africa.

Africa should also work towards strong leadership and institutions capable of leveraging internal dynamics to negotiate sustainable and beneficial deals with external entities, including China.

Getting such institutions and leaders is largely a function of governance — how ordinary citizens organise themselves, socially, economically and politically.

Finally, wishing away China’s presence in Africa is simply futile. However, for a more utilitarian and sustainable cooperation, the two entities must assess the progress made; diagnose arising challenges and use learned lessons to chalk a new path.

The writer is a scholar on China-Africa relations. Twitter: @Cavinceworld 



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