The Impact Of COVID-19 On Africa-China Economic Relations

Credit: Ver Angola

By Citizen Sika Togoh

Economic relations between China and Africa started in the 7th Century and continue through to present times. Currently, China seeks resources for its growing consumption among citizens and African countries seek to develop their infrastructure. 

Big-scale infrastructural projects are facilitated by the provision of soft loans and presented to African countries rich in natural resources.  China most often than not funds the building of such large-scale projects in African countries in exchange for access to minerals or hydrocarbons. While the relations are carried out through diplomacy and trade, military support conducted through the provision of arms and equipment is also a major component.

In the diplomatic and economic entry into Africa, the U.S., France, and the United Kingdom are the main rivals of China. In 2009, China overtook the U.S. as the biggest trading partner of Africa. Multilateral or bilateral trade has been entered into between China and 40 countries on the continent. 21 years ago, Africa-China trade amounted to $10 billion. By 2014, it had risen to $220 billion over a 14 year period. 

Evidence of Chinese activity in Africa has dated back to the Tang Dynasty. Chinese porcelain has been found along the coasts of Egypt, Chinese currency from the 9th Century has been discovered in Zanzibar, Kenya, and Somalia. The Song Dynasty established maritime trade with the Ajuran Empire in the mid- 12th Century. Most Chinese messengers or emissaries are rumored to have stopped before ever reaching Europe or Africa, however, some touched down on African soil. 

China has a lot to acquire from granting aid to its allies battling COVID-19 in Africa. It would not necessarily be exchanged for precious mining fields or hydrocarbon resources in Africa, but rather it would be in the form of political power in its geopolitical battle with the advanced Western countries. 

In Africa, most of the countries still have a fragile public health system to effectively deal with any ravaging pandemic which occurs. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only a fifth of countries have free universal healthcare provision for their citizens. In the midst of the COVID pandemic, China with its current position as the largest trading partner of the continent, stepped in to provide emergency medical supplies and equipment to countries to deal with the health emergency. China also bought into the idea of the G-20 countries to place a moratorium on the repayment of loans from some of the world’s poorest countries, the majority are located on the continent.

The COVID-19 pandemic is still hitting hard at developed economies, like the U.S., UK, Germany, and France. China has been quick and measured in ensuring that the infection rates among its population since December 2019 have been steadily falling. China’s pragmatic way of fighting the virus, compared to the lackadaisical approach by the aforementioned countries in the initial stages, places China in a proper and stable economic situation to offer a measured and bilateral conduit for Africa as a continent to recover properly to its steady economic progress pre-COVID-19.  The level of economic cooperation between China and Africa, though impressive in recent years, has naturally taken a downward trend due to the drop in prices of key commodities, like cocoa, oil, and gold, on the world market. In hindsight, mineral resources and commercial interests do matter greatly. Chinese companies are neck-deep in Africa because there exists a fertile ground to target a young and increasing population of 1.3 billion consumers across all the 50 plus countries on the continent.

Africa represents significantly less than a quarter of Beijing’s annual trade amount of $4 trillion. What happens next will be majorly on debt. China’s government, banks, and private entities gave out approximately $150 billion to African governments and state-owned entities between 2010 and 2018, according to China Africa Research Initiative at John Hopkins University. Most importantly, China has had an unenviable history of forgiving plenty of African loans, though usually, the amounts are not too huge. China prefers to give relief, which is accompanied by extra credit. Generally, Chinese overseas loans and grants have dropped for the past year due to economic fluctuations brought about by the pandemic. Timing is more complicated, Africa needs cash but big bang assistance packages may have to wait. Beijing in general attributes huge importance to its African Summit, the Forum on China – Africa Cooperation. At the end of the 2018 edition, China announced $60 billion of aid to the continent. 

Furthermore, even though the Chinese economy has seen remarkable resilience against the advanced Western countries, there are still plenty of unknowns, not the least around how China’s own faltering economy and domestic sentiments will seriously derail its ability to give out further aid to Africa. According to the UN, it has estimated an amount of $200 billion for health assistance and economic help for Africa – a minute part of what G-20 countries and Beijing are likely to spend in their local economies to mitigate the vagaries of COVID-19. Chinese medical personnel was the first team to arrive in Algeria to deal with the huge cases of COVID-19 in that country. Nigeria was also another country to receive Chinese medical professionals (15) to help the local professionals as well. 

As of June 2020, at least 148 Chinese medical professionals had been sent to 11 African countries to respond to the pandemic, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. China has promised to help African countries with the availability of vaccines once the 4 Chinese COVID19 vaccines that are currently in phase 3 trials are ready. China even facilitated the visit of 50 African diplomats to see the operations of a vaccine factory operated by Sinopharm. The participation of state-owned enterprises from China to support sister agencies in Africa is fostering better economic relations.  For instance, Jiangxi Technical Cooperation provided 10,000 pieces of masks to the Ministry of Roads and Highways of Ghana at the start of the pandemic.

In the same vein, the Chinese Construction and Civil Engineering Company donated cash, face masks, and sanitizers to the Lagos State government in Nigeria.

In conclusion, Afro-China relations have been strong and vivacious, especially since the post-independence of Africa across the generations in the political landscape. While the United States and Europe have provided substantial assistance to African states during the pandemic, their efforts have not received nearly the same dose of media coverage than Chinese assistance, nor have they been able to coordinate it in the way that Beijing has because of its control of the continent’s market. Despite the fact that at the beginning of the pandemic some predicted that it would lead to a downturn in relations between Africa and China, it has become crystal clear that the Chinese Communist Party has attempted to use the pandemic as an opportunity to strengthen such formidable ties.

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