China’s support for the ideologically driven freedom movements in Africa during the Cold War years was paid back when the African vote in 1971 pushed China over the threshold to claim its seat at the United Nations. While their mutual interest is the legacy of those times, mutual economic and strategic interests have drawn them closer over the years.
China’s commercial engagement with Africa has ballooned since China opened its economy. China–Africa trade has grown 40-fold in the last 20 years, making China Africa’s biggest trading partner and top lender today. Throughout the continent, China has built soccer stadiums, hospitals and other infrastructure that touch lives of ordinary folks who still carry scars from Western colonialism. China’s multi-trillion, multi-country, multi-ocean Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has provided another ambitious platform for its engagement with the African continent.
Long marginalized, Africa badly needs foreign investments that Chinese companies are more than willing to provide. Compared to their Western counterparts, they are less easily deterred by human rights issues or non-official roadblocks to project development in Africa.
The UN predicts that the population of Africa will surpass China’s by 2025. Given Africa’s youthful population, and that fact that in 2020 six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies were in Africa, the Chinese have come to see Africa as a sweet spot for investment. Of particular interest to China’s rapidly developing economy is Africa’s abundant natural resources, which also include strategic minerals.
Chinese finance and contractors have therefore, literally reshaped Africa’s infrastructure by building new ports, railways and roads. Chinese investments in manufacturing, mines and commercial real estate have also been substantial. Mckinsey, one of the top consulting firms in the world suggests that insofar as Africa is concerned “no other country matches this depth and breadth of engagement.”
90 percent of the 10,000+ Chinese companies operating in Africa are privately owned, finding that investing in Africa has become comparatively profitable. So, they keep reinvesting. The worry is the poorly governed states where China has poured in a lot of money into projects may turn out to be white elephants, compelling China to write-off loans.
Another area where China focuses heavily is education. China gives tens of thousands of scholarships to African students. This has led to African students going to China surpassing those going to the U.S. and Britain combined for the first time since 2014, generating immense goodwill for China. Various other training programs create a massive network of human resources throughout Africa. For instance, more than half the South Africa’s African National Congress executive committee members have had training and education in China.
In pursuit of its engagement policy, China has set up the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) that includes China and 53 of 54 African states. Meeting every three years alternating between China and Africa, the Forum draws more heads of African states than at the annual UN General Assembly. The only holdout is eSwatini (previously Swaziland) that continues to recognize Taiwanese sovereignty. Since these African countries often vote as a bloc in international fora, the relationship with Africa is of immense importance for China.
In the past year, Africa has recorded just about 5 percent of global Covid-19 cases and China has been quick to provide medical equipment, and has also joined in with WHO and G-20 initiatives meant to assist less privileged states. Since Covid – 19 has impacted global economic activity, FOCAC 2021 in Dakar is unlikely to see China matching its previous commitments but it shouldn’t be taken to mean China is losing interest in the African continent. Africa also is looking up to China for support in vaccinations, and the path forward beyond Covid-19.
In the wider context of global geopolitics, China’s rise and its involvement in different parts of the world has attracted claims of strategic competition and rivalry between China and the U.S.. Fearing erosion of its influence, the U.S. has adopted an aggressive posture to counter increased Chinese influence worldwide. In Africa, however, the U.S. has historically had relatively minimal strategic interests that China could threaten. Therefore, increased Chinese penetration in Africa has not drawn the level of American bellicosity that it has drawn against China in Southeast and South Asia.
On their part, African leaders have rejected American attempts to make relations with Africa a zero-sum game. Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s president, warns that Africa is not a prize to be fought over and doesn’t want to be forced to choose. Similarly, the South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, the veteran of the liberation movement, was blunt in warning that Africa should not suffer because of America’s “jealousy” of what China can offer the continent. “The West is unwilling to underwrite the cost of antagonizing China,” says W. Gyude Moore, a former cabinet minister in Liberia, now at the Centre for Global Development, a think-tank.
The U.S. and Japan have tried to increase infrastructure development allocations but nowhere near the scale of BRI. So, instead of development assistance the U.S. Secretary of State warns the African states that China is out-competing the U.S. and that African states should scrutinize the Chinese assistance.
The fact is, despite substantial spending in specific areas America does not match what China offers to the African nations. China is the ready partner in the continent’s need for new roads, bridges or other infrastructure projects. Huawei has not lost a single order in Africa despite American posturing against it . In absence of a real alternative offered up by the Americans, the U.S.’s demands cannot be taken seriously by Africa.
No country is ‘indispensable.’ The rise and fall of great civilizations have occurred throughout history. If history was static, Europe would still be a part of the Roman empire. The United States has had its time, during which it has done a lot of good and continues to do good for humanity. Now, in its waning years the U.S. should do one big favor: that is to let the world transition to the next phase of history peacefully.