Africa Needs To Grant Bigger Concessions To Keep Chinese Economic Assistance In The Future

By Amodani Gariba

South African presient Cyril Ramaphosa and Chinese president Xi Jinping at Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit in Beijing
Credit: Straits Times

Africa’s diplomatic relations with China took off in the 1950s and 60s. This happened after the Chinese Communist Party’s consolidation of its victory over Chiang Kai-Shek and proprietors. During this same period, Africa was going through an epic historical moment – the colonial empires of France and Britain came crumbling due to the rising tide of African nationalism. Africa-China relations blossomed because of the shared experiences with imperialism and similarity in political ideologies professed by the two. At the turn of the 21st century, however, the nature of this relation has become less of ideology and more of economics. Twenty years into the century, yet again, for China, the nature of the relationship has become less economic, and more political. However, economics still seems to be the cornerstone of the relationship for Africa.

While the economic costs of Chinese political maneuvering in Africa is worth the squeeze in the interim, it is, however, unsustainable in the long term. This article shows that with China’s success in displacing the US from the position of global political dominance, Africa would have to give up more concessions to maintain Chinese economic support. Let us dive deeper. 

China Needs Africa In Challenging The Political Hegemony Of The US

Undermining US’s geopolitical dominance is a two-way street. China helps Africa evade US sanctions on one hand, and Africa, on the other hand, gives China the political support it needs in multilateral institutions to face off with the US. 

China is fond of undermining US political authority worldwide by helping countries under the US’s economic sanctions escape the consequences. Economic sanctions are tools of subtle regime change. They heighten domestic economic pressure and in so doing, foster regime change through internal forces. We often see them deployed in countries with leaders the US wants out of power. This strategy became fashionable after overt military interventions such as coup d’état became widely unpopular. In Africa, two countries – Sudan and Zimbabwe – benefitted tremendously from Chinese economic support whilst under US sanctions. 

Darfur remains an unforgettable blot on the conscience of the world.  At a time when a swift intervention was desperately needed, the world watched on as the Sudanese despot, Omar Al-Bashir, butchered dark skinned Sudanese in Darfur, some in cold blood.  The US followed with economic sanctions on Sudan to force him to stop the violence. 

But China surprised us even more. Instead of helping to bring down Bashir, it rather empowered him. Beijing signed off billions of dollars in agreement to explore Sudanese oil fields. This ominously let Omar Al-Bashir off the hook. It is regrettable that China’s economic cooperation with Sudan in the midst of a humanitarian crisis helped Bashir perpetuate even more genocide against black Sudanese.

Following the US imposed economic sanctions on Zimbabwe for the forceful eviction of white farmers; Mugabe introduced the ‘Look East policy’. With this policy, Zimbabwe sought out to get from mainly China, whatever the West refused it. China played along, becoming Zimbabwe’s all-time most important investor. The look East policy gave Mugabe a critical political lifeline until his overthrow in 2017.

Africa too, in return, supports China on a range of issues like Huawei, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang, etc. China also relies on the African voting bloc in multilateral bodies like the UN, WHO, FAO to outflank the US.

China Is Winning

Beijing’s support for countries battling the US’s economic sanctions keeps getting bigger. Despite being hard hit by sanctions, countries like North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela are not crumbling as much as we had anticipated, thanks to China. This coupled with the economic supports China gives to countries in the Belt and Road Initiative has increased China’s geopolitical capital. Of the countries supporting China politically, Africa forms an important bloc by virtue of its sheer voting power. 

Making the situation worse is the posturing of the incumbent Trump administration. His often-racial outburst makes him less attractive to African leaders. Therefore, the US loses political points it needs to check China. Trump’s quest to bring American Jobs back home would discourage US firms from outsourcing. This leaves a bigger vacuum that China is more than ready to assume, which ends up giving more political capital to China. Another term for Trump is tantamount to putting the nail through the coffin. 

International pressure from E.U and the US has fallen short of checking China’s growing influence in Africa and elsewhere. China has grown to a stage where it is too big to fail. Sanctions, pressure, blackmail, etc will not succeed in getting China to change. The only tangible avenue that could promise the result is cooperation and consensus-building.  

When China Succeeds

We must make one thing clear. The economic cost of Africa’s political support to China is unsustainable. Pumping hundreds of billions of dollars of investment in Africa is a high-risk venture. When African leaders are not calling for outright debt cancellation, they are lobbying for debt restructuring and so on.  More problematic is that failure to yield to these demands is seen as a sign of bad will.  

Amid COVID-19, China has come under pressure to give debt relief to African countries. However, whatever decision China takes comes with consequences. If it decides to accede to these calls, it will end up creating domestic opposition, especially from the section of the Chinese population who think their government is engaged in reckless lending. If it decides otherwise too, China might start losing its African friends. China will continue to face this dilemma until such a time when the global power dynamic shift to its favor.

It is very possible for China to come out of this tussle ahead of the US. Once this happens, China may not need Africa’s political support.

However, the relevance of Chinese economic engagement in Africa can never be underestimated. Africa needs these Chinese investments to tackle the acute infrastructure deficit that keeps dragging down the economic growth of the continent. Over the past two decades, none other than China has shown a persistent commitment to helping Africa address this need. However, with the emerging of China as the new leader of the world, African countries would have to give up more concessions to keep the Chinese economic investment. This may be in the form of allowing China to build military bases on the continent. To protect its economic interests, China cannot count on the protection of the US. So far, China has only one military base on the continent The move to increase Chinese Military bases may be unpopular with African people, but at the same time, it is a bitter pill Africa would have to swallow to keep the money flowing. 

African leaders of today must be proactive in solving Africa’s economic problems.  Otherwise, the risk of bequeathing a more compounded problem to the next generation of African leaders is high. Failure to tackle African problems today could lead to uncomfortable choices tomorrow – sovereignty without development or development without sovereignty.

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