OP-ED: China-Africa Relations, Unequal Partners for Development?

Africa has thrived post colonialism, and while most western states have a huge stake in their former colonies, the United States had the biggest footprint on the continent for a long time. However, over the last decade China has risen to become the biggest trade partner with the continent, and its political influence on the continent has greatly increased.

China has been instrumental in providing loans for much needed infrastructure, ranging from airports and roads, to a proposed railroad connecting four east African countries. Apart from its availability, Chinese loans are attractive to African leaders because China (unlike the West) doesn’t require human rights obligations.

However, when states can’t afford to repay China, it could lead to them losing major assets. Sri Lanka owes over US$8 billion to Chinese government-owned firms. Its inability to repay the loans led to the loss of control and leasing of the major Hambantota port to the Chinese government-owned China Merchants Ports Holding Company for 99 years.

There is the fear that African states might suffer the same fate. These fears arose again this year with rumours of Djibouti gifting China the Doraleh Container Terminal.

China loans also paved the way for access to the continent’s natural resources, ranging from numerous mining deals, to oil exports. Angola, the continent’s second largest oil producer owes China up to US$24 billion, and pays back its debts in oil, but with dwindling oil prices, China is getting the better of the deal.

However, China-Africa relations isn’t all doom and gloom. Apart from providing loans for infrastructure, China has been pivotal in building education on the continent by giving scholarships. Being the continent largest partner, China has also helped infuse cash into economies. In 2018, china signed a ¥15 billion currency swap with Nigeria, which enables businesses from both nations to deal directly in Yuan instead of the United States Dollar as the primary currency.

Politically, China supported Kenya and Africa against the International Court of Justice in its trial of President Uhuru Kenyatta. A political partnership (if achieved) would be significant for African states because not only is China a world power, but they also have permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council. No African state has permanent membership.

China is also using its financial power and aid to push its “One China Policy.” The policy aims to remove support and recognition of states that seek independence from China, e.g. Taiwan and Hong Kong. In May 2018, Burkina Faso withdrew its recognition of Taiwan. As it stands, only Swaziland recognises Taiwan on the continent. Taiwan has blamed China for this, calling its foreign policy “dollar diplomacy.”

There are fears of clashes between the United States and China on the continent, for example, in Djibouti, which became home to China’s first overseas military base in 2017. It’s also home to other foreign military bases. There has been clashes between the U.S. and China, with the U.S. opposing the rumor of China being gifted the Doraleh Container Terminal, a port which the U.S. military base in Djibouti uses. Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had also condemned China’s policy in Africa, stating that China’s loans might threaten sovereignty of African states.

China has a great footprint on the continent, but is it a win-win situation, or an unequal relationship?

Featured photo by Nathan Hughes

Dounard Bondo

Dounard Bondo is an international law consultant.

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