Why Is China’s Prime Interest In Africa Political & Not Economic?

By Amodani Gariba

Chinese President with African leaders at China-Africa Cooperation
At the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, attended by leaders from 53 African nations, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to offer $60 billion in economic support to the continent over the next three years. © Reuters

On the continent of Africa, China has acquired a notorious reputation of predatory lending. Many African anti-China activists cite the debt-trap diplomacy to buttress their opposition to China’s rising influence on the continent. A section of these activists kept erroneously pointing to Zambia, as a case in point of China’s punishment for loan default – debt for equity swaps. Zambia became topical in the China-Africa debate, following a myriad of reportage that purported China has taken over the Zambian Broadcasting Corporation and the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport for the country’s failure to honour its debt obligations to Chinese lenders. 

This narrative, which suffers from paucity of evidence, persistently continues to inflame passion and public opinion against China. Beijing has found itself at the receiving end of blame, partly due to the constant propaganda waged against it, by Western mainstream media. Fuelling this notion is the perception that China seeks to exploit Africa’s natural and mineral resources at the expense of the Africans.

 Contemporary issues that seem to remind Africans of colonialism, be it economic or political, seem to arouse intense passion on the continent. This is not so surprising, considering the disdain many Africans hold for the continent’s colonial past. 

However, the perception of Chinese imperialism on the continent is a half-truth. Though China is the current factory of the world, it is exporting labour intensive industries to countries in Asia and Africa. Besides that, resource deals China signs with African governments, far from being exploitative, affords African countries with badly-needed financial support for development purposes.  It therefore bears mentioning that Africa’s economic relevance to China has been exaggerated. The continent is, but not too economically important to China.

For instance, China’s total trade with Africa jumped to around $10 billion in the year 2002, from approximately $185 billion in 2018. For Africa, this means a lot. How about China? Not so much. As a percentage of China’s global trade volume, Africa- China trade accounts for 4%. Even though Africa continues to be an important supplier of oil to China, Iran may upset the status quo soon. This would be so, after China and Iran finally conclude their megadeal, which will see China provide Iran with $400 billion of long term financing in exchange for cheaper crude oil from Iran for 25 years. 

Excluding oil, not only does China import large quantities of bauxite, iron, copper etc. from Africa, it has also made huge investments into the exploitation of these minerals. In Ghana and Guinea, for instance, China has invested billions into the development of the bauxite areas of those countries. However, for these mineral resources, no African country holds a large reserve, except for bauxite, for which Guinea holds the largest in the world. If China invested in African resources purely for economic reasons, its priority would have been elsewhere rather than Africa. Australia and Brazil have the largest iron ore deposit in the world. Indonesia, Myanmar, Peru and Bolivia are amongst the leading producers of tin in the world. 

Put together, African regional oil reserve may rival or surpass oil potential of the world’s big crude oil producers – Saudi, Iran, Gulf countries, Venezuela etc. However, when the comparison is done on a regional basis, Africa trails behind the Middle East by huge margins. Africa holds about 9% of the world’s reserve, with the Middle East holding 61%. 

Chinese investment in regions seems to match their resource potentials. Accordingly, their biggest allocation of investment for the Africa region is yet to cross the $60 billion benchmark. 

So, the question becomes, why does China’s interest in Africa never die out, especially when the economic returns are less promising. Let us start unpacking this with history. In the 60s and 70s, when China was poor, much like any other Third-World country, it still gave out aid to newly independent African countries. It built stadiums, factories, gave scholarships to African students to study in Chinese Universities, etc. Before 2000, perhaps the most famous Chinese aid project was the TanZam railway, completed in 1975. It ran from the heart of Zambia, all the way to Dar Es Salam, Tanzania. China did all these for diplomatic and political reasons. In an era of cold war, and severed relationship with USSR, China needed its own political allies in the world.

Since the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989, the US has enjoyed unipolar world dominance. However, this is about to change. With China’s meteoric rise, another cold war is fast approaching between the US and China. Just like the previous one, China needs political allies to emerge victorious in this emerging cold war. The US already has a competitive advantage in Latin America, the Middle East and some parts of East Asia. Africa remains the region with the odds equally split. China decided to go to work in Africa by using economic means to court African political support. So far, judging from the posture of Africa’s political class, things are working for China.  

 African leaders were emphatically clear in their condemnation of the premeditated and racially charged murder of George Floyd. Some even went as far as to demand the US put measures in place to curb institutional racism against Africans in the country. Yet, in a fashion that is characteristic of bi-polar patients, no African leader has issued a formal condemnation of China’s ethnic profiling of Uighur people in Xinjiang province. This indicates the extent of China’s sway over the continent particularly since the dichotomy between ethnic profiling and institutional racism is not wide apart. 

Also pointing to China’s growing political influence on the continent is the fact, in multilateral institutions, such as the WHO, African governments tend to side more with China than the US. Engaged in a growing geopolitical fisticuff with the US, China needs every political muscle to win. Africa as a continent is a very powerful political block within many multilateral bodies, by virtue of the voting power it commands. In courting African political support, Beijing is using economic firepower to further her political adventure across the globe. Therefore, while the basis of the Africa-China relationship is economic, the primary motivator for China is political.

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