China’s role in Africa has become a much-debated topic. Chinese involvement sprung from the phenomenal economic growth resulting from domestic economic reforms that introduced a market economy and encouraged foreign investments in China, in what the World Bank has described as ‘the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.”
China’s domestic hunger for energy has led to its interest in Africa as a source of energy and Africa is now a major focus of a Chinese domestic decision to increase its energy security by diversifying the sources of imported energy, particularly oil and gas. While 20 years ago, China’s energy footprint in Africa was only in the Sudan, there has been expansion to at least 16 more countries. China is also presented as having joined other global actors in converting the continent’s natural resources into actual wealth, creating jobs and transferring skills.
China views itself as contributing to Africa’s unmet economic needs by providing needed growth in supply of electricity, allowing more people access to this form of energy. Since 2010, for example, Chinese firms account for 30 per cent of all new power generation on the continent and that China is also providing loans to African governments to invest in coal plants. China’s global infrastructure plan, “One Belt, One Road,” is also cited, as a source of new land and sea trade routes that will ensure energy supplies, increase foreign trade and promote Chinese enterprise and products.
China often explains its role in Africa defensively because Chinese behaviour in the continent is widely viewed suspiciously. No other foreign actor in Africa is burdened with the need to demonstrate its good intentions on the continent. The theme about suspicious behaviour covers both the Chinese state and its nationals on the African continent. The news about Chinese nationals that Kenya recently expelled, after they set up as petty traders, in competition with locals, falls into this theme.
Besides claims that Chinese nationals behave badly in Africa, there are also allegations against the Chinese government including by other governments. For example, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton warned of “new colonialism” by China and more recently, former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson condemned Chinese “predatory loan practices,” which he said were undermining growth and creating “few if any jobs” on the continent.
While the primary reason for China’s presence in Africa is economic, China will inevitably be entangled with the politics of Africa. First, the phenomenal economic growth at home has left China with the need to convert its growth into influence over other states and the international order in general. Because China is already involved in Africa, the continent offers a playground on which to test the limits of its growing global influence.
Africa’s colonial past means that countries on the continent already have long-standing relationships with world powers that date back to when China was not a global actor. China will decide whether to supplant those relationships or compliment them. The US condemnation of China’s role in Africa is largely self-serving because China is challenging US hegemony on the continent. China’s future relations with individual African countries will be a balance between its own interests, the interests of those countries and, importantly, the interests of western powers, particularly the US, that already have long relationships on the continent.
Individual African countries are not passive in what will unfold. When President Uhuru Kenyatta took power in Kenya in 2013, while facing charges before the International Criminal Court, he instituted a “look east” policy, an elevation of Kenya’s relationship with China. The “look east” policy pre-emptively sought to address Kenya’s fear of political isolation from the west, the fate that Sudan suffered when President Omar Bashir, was charged before the ICC.
The Cold War had created a situation in which the US and the Soviet Union were the main actors when African states sought external allies to manage domestic politics. China is increasingly replacing the Soviet Union in that role. In particular, the role of China as a foreign power that is available to prop up regimes that would otherwise struggle for international legitimacy has been unmistakable in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Angola and now Kenya.
China would like to recover its huge loans to Africa and is now invested in the continuing political stability of countries that owe it money. In turn, those countries must now listen to China’s view. China also gives loans to leverage its investments. If Kenya, which owes China handsomely for the standard gauge railway, was to walk out of its commitment to repay the loan, China cannot uproot the railway as a remedy. To make Kenya’s future behaviour more predictable, China will keep throwing more money, whether or not Kenya needs the money. In return, China will seek a greater say in Kenya’s domestic affairs.
- The writer is the executive director at KHRC. [email protected]
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