In Africa, China Casts About for Stronger Footholds

From 2000 to 2016, China had already lent as much as $125 billion to Africa, according to the China Africa Research Initiative. In 2017, the two counterparts’ bilateral exchanges were estimated to have reached the sum of $180 billion, most of which were Chinese exports. Today, China stands as Africa’s primary trade partner and creditor, outpacing the United States since 2009.China’s presence in Africa is of such predominance that over half of major construction sites in the continent are put up by Chinese contractors. Seven out of ten of the world’s biggest construction companies are currently Chinese, and the African continent for its sole part bears more than 10,000 Chinese enterprises specialized  mostly in raw materials and infrastructure projects.

The majority of these projects are train lines, highways and seaports, mainly taking place in East Africa, as they draw from the broader context of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Announced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the BRI foresees global investments far surpassing current estimates of a trillion dollars.

Sino-African partnerships, however, have been largely heralded throughout Africa, considering the economic growth and infrastructural development these initiatives provide to the continent. In 2015, 63% of Africans were said by Afrobarometer to have a positive view of China’s enterprise in the continent —which is perceived as a contrast to its bitter servitude during the European colonialism era.

“Where the old railway was built by force and violence, against the wishes of those whose land it divided, the new railway is built by consent and partnership,” said Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta when signing an agreement with China in 2014.

In Kenya, China has offered $3.7 billion of loans as of 2017, mostly for railroad constructions. In Ethiopia, it lent $575 million to construct elevated railways in 2015. It had also undertaken projects  as important as the railroads linking Benin to the Ivory Coast in West Africa, and others binding Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania in East Africa.

One of the continent’s promising current projects, also shouldered by China, is a seaport in Dar es-Salaam, Tanzania, which is set to run over 12 miles of Bagamoyo’s coast, and is estimated to receive and unload some “20 million containers a year” —making it Africa’s prospective biggest port in a country where 80% of the population lives below poverty level.

However, countries borrowing large sums from China often run the risk of debt and trade dependence. According to the World Bank, 27 African countries showed increasing debt levels in 2017. In Zimbabwe —which is building its new parliament under a Chinese contractor— debt rates, representing 48% of its GDP in 2013, rose to 82% in 2017. Mozambique’s debt levels hopped up to 102% of its GDP in 2017, from 51% in 2013.

Yet besides China’s loans and infrastructure projects — along with Chinese technical expertise and sometimes even a provided workforce — other world economic powers hold but very little interest in Africa, for fear of non-reimbursement. For China, however, not being paid back is less of an issue, as if anything it even bolsters its inductions into the continent.

A “safety clause” is signed prior to the partnership, saying that the bankrupt counterparts would give the difference of what is owed through raw materials or infrastructure built by China. Sri Lanka (Asia) stands as a vivid example for this: in 2015, after it had failed to reimburse China for the construction of its biggest seaport, the two countries reached an agreement in which China would hold control over the harbor for 99 years. In an almost identical maneuver in 2017, Pakistan leased its Gwadar port to China for a period of 40 years as well.

These two Asian countries are key points on China’s “maritime silk road” in the Indian Ocean. Otherwise named the “String of Pearls”, this maritime route stretches from Mainland China to the Port Sudan, which is important to the Suez Canal, as it paves the way to Europe where China has already gained ground too.

Securing its passage through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal, China constructed its first overseas military base in Djibouti alongside the United States, Japan, France and Italy —despite swearing it would never do so, antagonizing U.S. imperialism.

But China’s presence in Africa is not solely economic or military. The African continent bears 54 Confucius Institutes (Chinese cultural centers and Mandarin schools), reaching as high a number as 5 institutes in a single country, such as in South Africa, and 4, such as in Kenya —where Mandarin will become mandatory in elementary schools by 2020, and where China opened its first Confucius center in Africa, as well as its first CCTV African bureau.

The United States, for their part, have long warned Africa about forfeiting its sovereignty at the expense of its exceptional partnership with China —whereas African-U.S. trades did not even exceed $39 billion in 2017.

Today, 90% of African raw materials are exported to China, while the continent’s debts are estimated to have reached $130 billion.