China in Africa: The Two Sides of the Coin

China's interest in Africa has undoubtedly expanded over the last decade. Chinese intentions on the continent can be categorized by two distinct viewpoints: is Beijing asserting unreasonable influence, or, is it merely taking up a significant responsibility as it finds its feet as a superpower. 

China's chief global competitor, the United States, claims China’s ambitions in Africa are expansionist and that Beijing’s policies do not fundamentally help African nations. Simultaneously, the US has scaled back much of its work in Africa following the departure of Obama, leaving the continent without a primary backer. While many in the international community would agree with Washington’s assertion of Chines expansionism in Africa, where does China actually stand?

Dr. Herman Schmidt, mediator and advisor on diplomatic affairs from London-based Global Distribution Network, says China is reshaping the world into a complex yet unified network of supply chains and trade gateways. While China isn't establishing its commercial footprint through military means, the country's innocuous-seeming long game shouldn't go unnoticed, Schmidt argues and adds: "It poses a real dilemma to the US and other arbiters of the current world order to watch from the sidelines as China acquires strategically crucial real estate along global trade routes - even if China's aspirations were entirely commercial."

According to other analysts, China is a country desperately looking for new sources of raw materials for its massively expanding industries. Howard W. French, in his book ‘China's Second Continent’ stated that Beijing saw a vulnerable, easy target in forsaken Africa, "Sensing that Africa had been cast aside by the West in the wake of the Cold War, Beijing saw the continent as the perfect proving ground for some Chinese companies to cut their teeth in international business. It certainly did not hurt that Africa was also the repository of a large share of global resources—raw materials that were vital both for China's extraordinary ongoing industrial expansion and for its across-the-board push for national reconstruction."

As if fulfilling French's prophecy, Sino-African trades hit a record of $300 billion the same year his book was published. Strong ties were evidenced again in a 2017 report by McKinseyand Co., showing there were more than 10,000 active Chinese companies in Africa.

While strong ties do exist, so too does a trade imbalance weighing heavily in favor of China. Even as trade between the two communities exponentially increased in the past five years, Chinese goods still flood African markets in far greater value than African exports reaching China.

Take Kenya, for example, where reports from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show the country imported a staggering $3.78 billion worth of goods from China consisting mostly of infrastructure material but managed to export only $167 million worth of goods to China.

While it is hard to avoid such trade deficit disparities considering the differences between the economies of the two communities, it is clear that China has a far better deal than the African continent.

Much of the international community is concerned by Beijing’s seemingly never-ending funding of infrastructure projects across the continent as part of its famed ‘Belt and Road’ initiative rolling out across the globe. Most analysts and scholars claim that China is establishing a debt trap in Africa, as it did in Sri-Lanka, where it funds unprofitable projects that will keep the host country indebted to Beijing.

Ordinary Africans are wary of Chinese expansion, whose dominance harks back to the days of Belgian, French and British rule over the continent. While infrastructure projects create immediate jobs and wealth for communities that may once have been impoverished, Africans view China’s role in their continent with significant skepticism given China’s investments come with strings attached. 

According to Chinese Foreign Policy analyst Mark Akpaninyie, "Instead of a state-led strategy, Chinese firms — motivated by profit and abetted by a toxic combination of bureaucratic disorganization, incompetence, and negligence at the state level — have exploited poor nations, which are dependent on cheap, and sometimes bad, loans." 

Conversely, China claims its intentions on the continent are the product of its role as a UN Security Council member and global superpower who is taking care of the world’s poorer regions. Beijing asserts its African initiatives amount to solely developmental and humanitarian aid. 

Professor Chin Kwan Lee from the University of California concurs and argues that China's expansion in Africa is not imperialism, as some claim, but instead is an enhanced multi-lateral partnership between the two communities.

Lee argues in the ‘Journal Specter of Global China: Politics, labor and Foreign Investment in Africa’ that the Chinese investments in Africa are not a form of financial and economic colonialism. He further explains that China has a future in mind where global economic disparity is reduced.

Lee holds similar views to Beijing, who in recent times, has had difficulty seeking to establish trust with African nations. Despite their appetite for Chinese loans, most African leaders, like their fellow citizens, question the long term effects of these hand-outs. Many leaders worry that Chinese loans could force their countries to bend to the economic and political will of Beijing.

Beijing has tried her best to erase any traces of infrastructure-for-influence claims. As John Hopkins' Professor, Deborah Brautigam, says "The idea that Chinese banks and companies are luring countries to borrow for unprofitable projects so that China can leverage these debts to extract concessions is now deeply embedded in discussions of China's [Belt and Road] program…” Brautigam refers to Sri Lanka's Hambantota Port Project, seen by many as a blatant influence project for Beijing, as lacking sufficient evidence to prove Chinese malfeasance. 

Despite numerous skeptics and detractors, China is pushing forward with its Belt and Road Initiative and placing a significant emphasis on how that program pushes forward in Africa.

While China's investment has stirred an economic revolution on the African continent by providing immediate jobs and infrastructure, the long-term effects of Beijing’s strategy may not be as positive. If claims of Beijing’s debt-for-influence are true, and African nations find themselves making harmful concessions in the future, then new highways and ports will do little to grant Africa economic independence. If Beijing is truly in control, Africa stands no chance to bring itself out of poverty and into the global marketplace.