China’s Alliance with Africa: Two-Way Traffic or Neo-Colonialism?

It is becoming increasingly hard to think of a country that China does not have a presence in. China’s tremendous rise as an economic and political power over the past two decades and its insatiable appetite for resources have led it to seek ventures in continents such as Africa and Latin America. These overtures have undoubtedly opened new avenues and opportunities for underdeveloped and developing countries but they are not bereft of potential dangers. Nowhere is this phenomenon more prevalent than in the African continent. Within a short span of less than a decade, China has emerged as the most important player in Africa’s economic scene. The Asian behemoth surpassed the US as the continent’s largest trading partner in 2009. In 2010, Sino-African trade amounted to a whopping $120 billion compared to a figure of $10 billion in 2000. In the wake of sluggish economic growth in the developed economies in the North America and Europe, African nations view China as the primary source of trade, investment and even foreign aid. China’s top trading partners in Africa include Angola, South Africa, Nigeria, Sudan and Egypt. While it is seemingly undeniable that China’s drive into Africa is primarily fueled by its interest in the continent’s immense natural resource wealth, China has engaged in many initiatives to construct a symbiotic relationship with its African partners. It has been involved in building roads, schools, hospitals, and bridges, developing the nascent oil industry of countries such as Angola and also training African workers in the manufacturing sector. The country’s foray into the continent, however, has unsurprisingly been met with skepticism from certain quarters in the West. China’s business-only approach to relations with African countries and its considerable involvement in countries run by autocratic regimes has drawn the ire of western commentators. This article seeks to explore China’s varied involvement in Africa, the benefits that have accrued to both parties, the sources of concern and frustration from this budding relationship and the prospects of this alliance that holds the key to the future of an entire continent with more than 1 billion people.

China’s main mode of conducting business with resource rich African nations has been to offer development loans or become involved in the construction of special economic zones in exchange for oil, minerals such as iron-ore and copper and to a lesser extent, food and agricultural commodities. Angola recently received a $2 billion oil-backed loan from China’s Export Import Bank and funds from other Chinese companies to train Angolan workers and to build schools, hospital and roads in exchange for Angola’s crude oil. China has also helped countries such as Nigeria and Angola in their efforts to develop their oil sectors while benefitting from trade deals. Africa, as a region, is China’s second largest source of crude oil after Middle East. Crude oil from African nations such as Sudan, Angola, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea account for more than 30% of China’s total crude oil imports, a clear indication of how crucial Africa’s resources are to China.

The Sino-African relationship cannot be viewed as one-way traffic. In exchange for Africa’s mineral wealth, China has been heavily involved in the accelerating the development of Africa’s crumbling infrastructure. China has taken steps to ensure transfer of knowledge from Chinese firms to local African businesses and is an active investor in Africa’s emerging industries. For instance, China has offered support for the construction of a special economic zone in Ethiopia and is involved in building a road leading to the coast. Chinese companies have also invested in Ethiopia’s leather sector and have trained over 800 Ethiopian workers in manufacturing shoes and other leather products. China also recently offered a $1.1 billion development loan to Nigeria, of which $500 million will be used towards the development of a light rail system in the capital city of Abuja.  The China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation will be involved in the construction of this rail system. Additionally, China and Ghana signed an agreement in September 2010, whereby Ghana would receive infrastructure-related loans worth $15 billion. China also signed a similar agreement with Congo in September 2009 worth $6 billion. China has also been offering medical aid by sending doctors to clinics in Africa, building hospitals and investing in the training of African medical staff. By 2010, China had sent a total of 17,000 medical workers to almost all countries in Africa.

China’s largely successful entry into Africa and its acceptance by African nations beg the question- Why have the developed countries in the West not engaged Africa to the extent China has?

The answer lies in the stark difference in the approach the two countries have when dealing with Africa. Unlike the West, China’s investment and aid is not linked to political reforms and the human rights record in the countries they do business with. China stays completely aloof from the governance and politics of the countries and this suits its partners rather well. On the other hand, aid from the US and Western Europe is mainly delivered via non-governmental organizations and is contingent on the governance of these countries. The indignation of African countries to the West stems from the sentiment most African nations hold that the West is bent on instructing them how to run their own countries. For example, donors from organizations in the West may have qualms donating funds to Rwanda because of the country’s alleged clandestine support for the violent rebellion in neighboring Congo. China, however, has had no reservations investing in roads, agriculture and power projects in the country.

China’s occasional involvement in African politics is expectedly driven by its business interests. The world’s second largest economy found itself playing the role of a mediator in the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan over the division of oil wealth. While South Sudan holds close to 75% of the combined oil reserves, North Sudan possesses majority of the pipelines and distribution infrastructure needed to export the oil. Considering that the China National Petroleum Corporation is the largest investor in Sudan and China accounts for nearly 70% of Sudan’s crude oil exports, China had a significant stake in the peaceful resolution of the dispute and thus agreed to take on the mantle of mediator.

While China’s massive efforts to engage Africa may appear as an indisputable win-win situation for all parties involved, such an assumption is dangerously flawed. China’s “business-only” approach to foreign affairs and vested self-interests in developing a partnership with African nations has been criticized. While China’s interest in Africa’s resources is in full view for all to see, it is also believed that China’s efforts are tied to its objective of winning crucial votes from these African countries in important forums such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.

Allegations also persist that China has been offering military and financial support to autocratic African regimes. China’s arms exports to Africa have witnessed a tremendous rise. China’s share of the arms market in Africa has grown to 25% from around 6% in the span of little more than a decade. It is alleged that China’s weapons are being used by repressive governments in conflict zones in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and the Ivory Coast, in violation of arms embargoes imposed on these countries by the UN.

While many of the above criticisms have been leveled by governments and organizations in the West, certain quarters within Africa also view China’s dominating presence in their countries with suspicion. The Chinese have been rebuked for engaging in exploitative business practices and human rights violations. There are claims that Chinese companies underbid local companies for government contracts and do not hire enough local workers on infrastructure projects. Concerns have also been raised over the poor treatment of African workers by Chinese firms. For instance, working conditions in the Chinese operated mines in Zambia have been considered as inhuman. Furthermore, Chinese companies also allegedly propagate the rampant corruption that African countries are notorious for by paying bribes to unions to avoid repercussions. Some Africans go so far as viewing China as a ‘colonial’ power and believe that the Asian giant treats their nations as dumping grounds for cheap Chinese exports such as machinery, telecom equipment and consumer goods. There have also been reports on the shoddy quality of the projects that China has helped construct. A hospital in Angola built by Chinese firms was forced to shut down after cracks started appearing in the walls months after it was opened. An 80 mile road constructed by the Chinese in Zambia has eroded after it was unable to withstand heavy rains.

Despite the comments of the many detractors, the mutual benefits that can accrue to both China and Africa in this engagement are fairly evident. Africa nations can seek to leverage its trade relations with China and use its renewed infrastructure to expand exports to other countries. China certainly has the financial muscle to help Africa bridge its infrastructure spending gap of $31 billion. China can also appease its critics by adopting business practices that do not propagate corruption and impose stricter labor standards. These practices are in China’s best interests since they do not demand political reform from the individual governments and are thus easier to implement. The tangible benefits, notwithstanding, there are challenges lurking in corners that can derail this partnership. Considering the scale of this engagement, China’s future growth trends are of high significance for Africa’s development and there are clear signs of the Chinese economy slowing down. Despite the potential roadblocks, the China-Africa partnership holds tremendous potential and could well hold the key to Africa’s prosperity and economic development.

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