Sino-African Relations : A New Era in ‘Dark Continent’

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Chinese investments in Africa have promoted rapid infrastructural growth in the continent. However, there lies scepticism regarding its intentions.

 

ince the 1990s, China has been experiencing rapid growth, increasing military-economic and political influence and economic expansionism around the world. China’s incredible manufacturing capacity, low cost and aggressive economic policies have led the once impoverished nation to become the world’s second-largest economic power. Chinese leaders are stepping up their economic partnership beyond Asia with a particular focus on Africa.
Africa is the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent. Comparatively young, African nations have been experiencing steady growth and could be the last frontier of the 4th industrial revolution. It is no wonder that China is looking to spread its economic might there. Africa has abundant natural resources and cheap manpower to feed the ever-growing hunger of 1.4 billion Chinese. On other hand, with the everchanging geopolitical scenario, Africa is increasingly aligning itself with China. The partnership is evident on world forums where African leaders have repeatedly supported China over Western interests.

 

A HISTORICAL RELATION
The Peoples Republic of China was established in 1949 after Chairman Mao drove Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist troops to Taiwan. The newfound people’s republic, however, had no friends in the western hemisphere. It had to wait till the 70s to get inducted into the United Nations and was also dependent on Soviet aid for survival. However, Chinese leadership targeted the most backward of all regions to build reputation and credibility – Africa.
Since the 1960s, China has spent billions on African infrastructure development. European development in colonised Africa chiefly focused on resource extraction. Newly independent nations in the 1960s and 1970s had little capability to carry out development on their own. China came in to fill the void. In exchange for recognition, China repaid Africa in terms of steel, coal, roads, ports, infrastructure and buildings. Some of these cooperations include building a 6000-kilometre railway between Tanzania and Zambia, a dam in Sudan and an airport in Uganda.

MODERN CHINA IN AFRICA
China’s economic involvement in Africa has reached an unprecedented level in the 21st century. Since 2000, the Asian superpower has lent more than USD 160 billion to African nations. The number is higher than the next 8 lenders combined. In other words, except for a few exceptions like Lesotho or Libya, all African nations have borrowed money from Chinese banks. Civil war, poor governance, military involvement and poverty are the largest obstacles to African development. Estimates say Africa would need USD 130 to 170 billion per year to fill the infrastructure gap. But the countries are short of about USD 70 to 100 billion. This is where China comes in.
Over 10 thousand Chinese construction firms are actively involved in Africa. A USD 1 billion fund under Belt and Road initiative for Africa, and a USD 60 billion package announced in 2018 are some examples. No wonder African leaders eye China as their development partner. Mammoth Chinese projects on the mainland – 29,000 high-speed railway networks, over 100,000 km of expressways, over 100 new airports, and 500 economic development projects show how China today leads in infrastructure development. They are willing to repeat the feat in Africa, albeit on a smaller scale. Understandably, China has pushed away US and EU involvement in African projects (34% and 6.7% respectively) with its 40% share. Examples include a USD 12 billion coastal railway for Nigeria, a USD 4.5 billion railway between Ethiopia and Djibouti and a USD 11 billion port in Tanzania. Since 2010, a third of Africa’s power grid has been developed by Chinese firms.
African countries were also dependent on China during times of COVID-19. Western nations, despite heavy criticism, refused to provide vaccines for the billions around the world. Chinese vaccine producers stepped in to fill the gap and also sent millions of masks, ventilators and medical equipment. On every level, the Sino-African partnership continues to dwarf Western involvement there.

 

 

Western analysts have pointed out that China’s debt tactics may force Africa to become a modern-day colony.

 

 

 

SINO-AFRICAN TRADE AND COMMERCE
China is Africa’s biggest trading partner, with per year trade surpassing USD 250 billion by 2021. With USD 300 billion in investment, Chinese businesses in Africa are well above the USD 2 trillion mark. East Africa, especially, has experienced a massive inflow of Chinese capital, businesses and construction firms. Unlike Western firms, Chinese counterparts are cheap, making them the favoured choice for African leaders who want to develop infrastructure in exchange for providing China with much-needed oil, metal, minerals and timber. China’s high growth is largely dependent on the consumerism of its 1.4 billion inhabitants. China simply doesn’t have the enormous natural resources that are vital to keeping pace with this need. The Democratic Republic of Congo alone contains half of the world’s coltan, an essential ingredient for mobile phones. Around 20% of Chinese cotton imports and about one-third of oil import comes from China. The continent also has massive reserves of iron, coal, gas and manganese. China deeply depends on the unprocessed natural resources from Africa to sustain its growth. Hence, Africa remains a vital component of Chinese trade.
About 18% of African imports are of Chinese origin. This includes toothbrushes to cars, motorcycles to toilet seats and plastic goods to machinery. Besides, Africa is the largest market for Chinese electronic goods. Norinco, China’s state-owned arms manufacturer also accounts for a large share of African weapons imports.

 

THE ALLEGED DEBT TRAPS
Western analysts have pointed out that China’s debt tactics may force Africa to become a modern-day colony. Chinese loans come without regulations that are normal for Western loans. Many leaders may get attracted to this since loan money is also a source of large-scale corruption. Chinese lenders generally don’t relax their payment returns. Like Sri Lanka’s newly built Hambantota Port, many African construction projects have proved to be white elephants. A costly airport in Uganda’s capital, for example, didn’t provide the expected profit. In turn, Uganda was forced to lease the port to Chinese contractors. Some of the deals that Africa makes with China are often costly. Angola, for one, exports 60% of its oil to China. In turn, China has developed electrical capacity and infrastructure in Angola, though the deal was very costly for the African nation. Similarly, the USD 4 billion Ethiopia-Djibouti railway and equally expensive Kenya-Mombasa railway, which was 80% funded by China, have proved to be a burden for the developing economies. The sustainability of many Chinese projects is also in question. Sceptics view that China intentionally hands out loans to non-profitable projects, which in turn gives it solid leverage over the recipient nation. Failure of loan repayment results in them leasing the projects to Chinese companies. Corruption, absence of monitoring, and ill-studied plans have indebted many African governments.

 

SUSTAINING ‘RESOURCE CURSE’?
Some argue that China’s high involvement in African nations has hindered local capacity development. Cheap Chinese products, superior in quality to African productions, have flooded the market. African manufacturers are nowhere near this competition. 250,000 Nigerian garment workers lost their job when Chinese garments entered the market. African governments are increasingly becoming dependent on natural resources for foreign income. This ‘resource curse,’ as dubbed by Western analysts, will hinder Africa’s long-term development.

SINO-AFRICAN FUTURE
Whatever the debate may be, the future of Africa seems to be one closely entwined with China. Westerns may call it new colonialism or a debt trap, but statistics show Africans have a largely positive outlook on China and it won’t be much risky to predict that increasing Sino-African partnerships will continue to foster in the decades to come.

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