Africa’s relationship with China is coming under increasing, and often alarmed, scrutiny but does the continent have any real grounds for concern? asks Cobus van Staden.
How scary is China? In the think-tank world where I spend my time, this has become one of the biggest questions of the age. In Washington, the consensus seems to land somewhere between ‘very’, and ‘the devil itself’,
But things become a lot more complicated once you cross the Equator. Africa simply faces different realities, notably that the average African is 19.5 years old. Having a very young population is both a huge development opportunity, and a significant threat if that development doesn’t keep up with citizens’ needs.
This has prompted African policymakers to resist pressure from the US to stop working with China. The reality is that in key fields like internet provision and large-scale infrastructure, there simply aren’t many affordable alternatives to Chinese companies.
However, this hasn’t reduced popular misgivings about China among Africans. We saw this clearly in April last year, when botched Covid measures snowballed into the mass eviction of African migrants in the Chinese city of Guangzhou.
The resulting firestorm on African social media crystallised many of these negative perceptions of China: that it’s racist, or neo-colonial, or only interested in African commodities but not African people. It is important for Africans to have these conversations, but they don’t necessarily increase the continent’s range of development partners.
Instead, I would argue that these incidents should fuel harder conversations about how and why African governments are failing to get the deals the continent needs from China, rather than the ones China would like to give.
Everyone knows that China is a tough negotiator. But that doesn’t mean that African actors are powerless – far from it. Accessing this potential means challenging some key assumptions.
One such assumption is that China is only interested in African commodities like oil and minerals. While this was a driver of Chinese investment 15 years ago and remains true for certain sectors (cobalt in the DRC, for example), things have changed.
Let’s take oil. In 2008, China imported more than a third of its oil from Africa, notably from Angola, Nigeria, Sudan/South Sudan and the Republic of Congo. By 2018, that figure had fallen to 18%, a trend sped up even more by the pandemic. Chinese refiners became so disinterested in West African oil that Angola was left with a glut.
The reason is that since the mid-2000s, China’s options have multiplied. It now has several more sources for oil and gas, including Brazil, the Middle East, and Russia. The same is true for many other commodities. From gold to timber, and even cacao, China isn’t as dependent on African resources as it used to be.
The fact that China-Africa trade remains mostly concentrated on raw commodities increasingly reflects what African countries are offering, rather than simply what China wants to buy.
African political support
So what’s driving the relationship then? While commodities can be replaced, African political support and markets are increasingly crucial. As China faces pressure from a re-energised Western coalition on issues like Xinjiang, Hong Kong and the South China Sea, its support increasingly comes from the Global South.
Africa’s 54 China-friendly votes at the UN, and the continent’s support at the WHO and other multilateral bodies are crucial to China’s ambitions to become a global norm-setter.
While they face increased hostility in the Global North, Chinese tech companies like Huawei, Transsion and ZTE are doing huge business in Africa. The continent makes up a third of Chinese construction companies’ international contracts. Sixty-two per cent of the African construction market is occupied by Chinese companies. These trends mean that despite the massive power gap, Africa can exert some pressure. However, African policymakers will have to start at home.
Take debt, for example. China is a massive lender to Africa: to the tune of $153bn between 2000 and 2019. It’s key to understand that for China, debt is both a key to development, and a kind of strategic glue that links countries together.
China maximises this leverage by insisting on secrecy. A prominent new study found that many Chinese loan contracts don’t only insist on keeping the terms of the loans secret, they even stipulate that the very existence of the loan has to be held secret. This obviously raises the risk of corruption on both sides, and threatens to saddle future generations of Africans with debts they won’t even realise exist until it’s too late.
However, the report also found that many Chinese loan contracts have a stipulation that allows for the full disclosure of both the existence and the terms of the loan, if the recipient country’s laws demand it.
This is a great example of a wider truth about Chinese involvement in the Global South. If a country has robust legislation and enforcement, Chinese entities tend to adjust their behaviour accordingly. If the legislation and enforcement are weak, they frequently do what they like.
The responsibility to make loans sustainable falls on the recipient country. For this reason, it’s crucial that African governments and the AU commit themselves to radical loan transparency. If the terms of all government-level loans are published, it will reduce corruption and defuse the secrecy of both Chinese and other loans.
Another example is energy. A lack of dependable electricity is one of Africa’s most serious development hurdles. Chinese contractors are world leaders in installing energy generation, and China is also more likely to fund this kind of infrastructure than many other development partners.
China’s development was notoriously rough on the environment, with Chinese state-owned companies becoming the largest implementers of coal-fired electricity in the world. However, thanks to intensive state subsidies, China has also become the world’s largest implementer of wind and solar energy.
With President Xi Jinping recently committing China to reach peak emissions by 2030, and to become carbon-neutral by 2060, China’s state-owned sector is facing economic pressure to do something with all its coal capacity before Xi’s reforms start biting.
This economic pressure to market coal along the Belt and Road coincides with the power of the coal lobby in certain African countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe. The incentive on both sides to make a quick buck means these countries are currently being saddled with expensive Chinese-funded coal power plants that will poison millions of people and worsen climate change before inevitably turning into stranded assets.
Yet, Chinese companies are also implementing massive green energy capacity all over the continent, including helping to build the world’s largest solar power plant in Morocco. The choice between sustainable and unsustainable energy is ultimately an African choice. China doesn’t care – it makes money either way.
The flipside of China’s breathtaking efficiency is its breathtaking amorality. To get the best outcomes from this partnership, Africa will have to be clear-eyed and hard-nosed. This means ruthlessly pursuing environmental and labour sustainability, and going after rule-breakers hard – be they Chinese companies or African officials. It means committing the whole continent to radical loan transparency and refusing pressure to keep debt secret.
China can be scary, but what’s a lot scarier from an African perspective is what the continent will look like in 20 years’ time if it doesn’t hit its development and sustainability targets now. Compared to that, driving a hard bargain with China is child’s play.
Cobus van Staden is a senior researcher focusing on Africa-China relations at the South African Institute of International Affairs and co-host of the China in Africa Podcast.