By: Dylan Shepard
As 2021 drew to a close, two contrasting narratives surrounding the nature of China’s economic role in Africa emerged in the international press. On one hand, many editorials recognized the record value of trade between China and African nations despite a year riddled with global supply chain disruptions. Compared to the previous year, Quartz reported that exports from Libya and Benin to China increased by 400%, while exports from Togo, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, and Eswatini doubled (Mureithi 2022). In many ways, this economic feat reflects well on the Chinese government’s investment and developmental strategies in Africa. While the Western initiatives led by the United States focused on foreign aid, for the past two decades China provided low interest loans, economic consultation, and massive infrastructure deals as part of efforts to rapidly industrialize Africa’s primarily natural resource based and agrarian economies while increasing Africa’s access to global, (i.e. Chinese) markets. Simultaneously, other headlines in the foreign press tell a very different story of the impact of China’s increased influence in Africa. Although many countries’ true debt to China is largely hidden, it is estimated that at least four African countries now owe at least 20% of their nominal GDP to just China alone (Horn et al. 2020). All of these countries including Djibouti, the Republic of the Congo, Niger, and Zambia are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with the Congo in particular being one of the largest recipients of Chinese Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) (Sow 2018, Mishra 2021). In some cases, this debt has begun to seriously hinder national governments’ ability to function due to having to allocate an increasing amount of their national budgets to interest payments. Beyond constraining the state, another major consequence of these debts can be seen with the recent controversy over some of the clauses of the Entebbe Airport expansion deal signed between the Ugandan government and the Chinese state-owned Export and Import Bank (EXIM). With some Ugandans fearing a repeat to the fate of the Sri Lankan Hambantota Port and a Chinese seizure of the airport in the case of a default on payments, back in October the Ugandan Finance Minister attempted to reassure concerned MPs while admitting that Uganda “... shouldn’t have accepted some of the clauses [of the EXIM deal]” (Qtd. in Pilling & Hille 2022).
One dimension that is often missing in assessing the Chinese government’s controversial role in Africa is understanding why African states have increasingly trended towards Beijing in the past two decades, while the influence of the West, and particularly the United States, has largely receded on the continent. In short, Chinese investment deals compared to Western offerings have proven to be less selective, more competitive, and have done a better job at catering towards each individual African states’ economic interests. That being said, both the Trump and current Biden administration have made a concerted effort to reverse this trend through a combined private and public sector approach to counter growing Chinese influence in Africa. Paired with recent reports of China’s coercive vaccine diplomacy and some of the questionable clauses of deals signed under Chinese auspices, a growing number of African countries may look to reevaluate their current relationship with China. Although recent American initiatives in Africa do show some progress, the reality is that it is unlikely that the United States will be able to fully unseat Chinese influence on the continent due to America’s lack of capacity or interest to match Chinese investment.
Cycle of Debt & Poverty: Failures of the Washington Consensus
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has played a role on the African continent since the early years of the Cold War, but the current nature of China’s relationship with Africa that is seen today did not emerge until the early 2000s under the presidency of Hu Jintao (Shinn 2019). Before China’s increased involvement on the continent, for decades foreign economic support to African economies was largely relegated to two areas: foreign aid and encouraging economic liberalization. In terms of the former, in response to the decade of violence, famine, and instability during the 1970s, many Western governments led by the United States sought to increase government assistance to the most beleaguered countries in Africa. USAID’s responsibilities subsequently shifted from primarily offering capital assistance programs in the 1960s to focusing on providing “basic human needs” such as food, water, and healthcare (USAID 2021). Despite this foreign aid undeniably having positive humanitarian outcomes in many of the countries USAID operated in, many have criticized this approach as creating a relationship of “paternalism,” with certain African states having become overly reliant on foreign aid to provide basic human services to its population (Kwemo 2017, Moyo 2009). Skeptics of foreign aid point to a lack of results on poverty relief despite over a trillion US dollars of development-related aid having been sent to Africa since the conclusion of the Second World War. In 2009, it was reported that real per-capita income had actually fallen in Africa since the 1970s, while the number of people living on less than a dollar a day had doubled since the late 1980s (Moyo 2009).
At the same time, the effect of encouraging economic liberalization had also shown limited returns. With the rise of the Washington Consensus towards the end of the Cold War, the American government sought to export American institutions of democracy and the free market in the wake of the decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2000, the US Congress passed the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which was a duty free trade program that enabled qualified African states to have access to thousands of American products and goods completely tax exempt. To qualify, African states had to pledge to liberalize state economic policy while also enacting democratic reforms. Despite lofty goals to “reduce poverty, combat corruption, and protect human rights,” according to AGOA government data, overall trade under the AGOA program has fallen sharply since its 2008 peak while largely remaining stagnant since the program’s renewal in 2015. During the process of its renewal, it was discovered that the vast majority of African exports to the US under AGOA remain energy related products such as crude oil, which is a sector of the economy that is already well established in African countries like Nigeria, meaning that much of this trade was not contributing towards poverty alleviation or job growth (AGOA 2021, Helfenbein 2015). The other mechanism of promoting liberalization through Western lending and financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have not fared much better. After three decades of imposing similar liberal democratic pre-conditions to development loans, political and economic reform in Africa remains limited while debts incurred through the loans fueled debt crises in Africa that continue to this day. In the end, much of the loan payments from older loans were eventually forgiven under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative starting in 1996, while new loans continue to be offered each year creating a “cycle of corruption, slower economic growth, and poverty” as observed by Zambian economist, Dambisa Moyo (IMF and World Bank Staffs 2001, Moyo 2009).
According to Gyude Moore, former Liberian Minister of Public Works, Western attempts to improve Africa’s economic situation subsequently failed due to their inability to address the underlying systemic problem of a lack of critical infrastructure that remains the biggest inhibitor to economic growth to this day (2019). Moore points out that much of Africa’s critical infrastructure was developed during the colonial era when the fundamental extractive nature of the economies present at the time created an infrastructure system that was adept at taking from Africa, while creating an impossible supply chain to create much in it. Even though the colonial era has long since passed, overly dense and incompetent African state bureaucracies have hindered the success of Western private-sector investments in infrastructure, contributing to a number of factors that make Africa too risky for most Western private sector investors. Some have described this phenomenon as Africa’s “infrastructure paradox,” underscoring the dynamic how despite clear market interest in infrastructure development in Africa, issues such as delays in obtaining licenses from state bureaucracies and political uncertainties in African capitals have contributed to the staggering statistic that 80% of foreign led infrastructure projects in Africa “... fail at the feasibility and business-plan stage,” according to a recent study by McKinsey (Lakmeeharan et al. 2020). As a result of these realities, it was clear that Africa was not receiving the critical infrastructure it needed from either Western government or private sector investment.
“Win-Win Diplomacy”: The Rise of Chinese Economic Influence in Africa
It is during the early 2000s, after decades of failed American economic initiatives in Africa, that China emerged to offer a fundamentally different approach than that of the Washington Consensus. At the time, there were two main reasons why China wanted a closer relationship with Africa with the first and most important being access to natural resources. By the mid-1980s China’s economic revolution was in full swing and yearly double digit growth rates fueled demand for critical raw materials such as copper, iron, oil, and zinc (Dollar 2016). Although continued economic liberalization in the 1990s under Jiang Zemin saw China’s gradual integration into the global economy, culminating in 2001 in China’s long desired admittance into the World Trade Organization (WTO), Chinese leadership remained concerned about its ability to secure long-term access to core strategic natural resources through the Western dominated market system and economic institutions (Moore 2019, Shinn 2019). In this way, fostering closer ties to Africa, which was naturally abundant with many of the raw materials desired by China’s fastly growing economy, was an opportunity to secure China’s long-term access to natural resources without relying on the West.
The other major contributing factor to China’s interest in Africa stemmed from its view of the continent as being a future economic and industrial powerhouse. As China’s economy would continue to modernize and eventually transition towards a more service based economy, it was likely that Africa with its cheap land, access to natural resources, and its burgeoning populations would be the next site of rapid industrialization that would eventually replace China as the factory of the world (Shepard 2019, Moore 2019). Given this perception of the great future potential of the African continent, the Chinese government envisioned how early investment would provide dividends later both in the economic and diplomatic lens. China, even today, remains a country with few strategic allies, bar North Korea, and the many African states often neglected by the West and the United States could prove to be fertile ground for finding important allies in the future.
Although China’s interest in Africa was driven by immediate concerns over natural resources, not unlike the interests of many Western investors and governments in the past, Chinese loan and investment programs differed significantly from their Western counterparts in their focus towards fostering indigenous African economic development. This can be seen in China’s focus on increasing industrialization and improving key strategic infrastructure that would decrease trading times and make African economies more accessible. Rather than Chinese investment being framed in the language of foreign aid or Chinese altruism, at the very cornerstone of China’s investment strategy in Africa was a focus on maintaining mutually beneficial partnerships that would eventually create the framework of China’s present-day ubiquitous motto of “win-win diplomacy.” On the African side, Chinese low interest loans provided African governments the necessary capital to develop key infrastructure such as roads and rail lines, which after completion increased the country’s domestic and foreign economic circulation while expanding the economy. For example, the Chinese built Mombasa-Nairobi rail line completed in 2017 was estimated by the Kenyan Minister of Transportation to produce a 1.5% boost to Kenyan GDP (Kacungira 2017, Sun 2017). On the Chinese end, African governments award Chinese state owned contractors massive infrastructure deals that bolster the Chinese economy while at the same time deepening China’s access to African natural resources. Chinese facilitation of the deals also had a significant benefit of enhancing China’s international profile. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is the main channel through most of China’s foreign investment and infrastructure projects, continues to draw African states involved in the organization further into Beijing’s economic and political orbit (Nedopil 2021).
Although there is a limited amount of Chinese private investment into Africa, excluding the overt government led investment of state owned enterprises (SOEs), the vast majority of these firms are large private Chinese corporations like Huawei that already enjoy close relations with the Chinese Communist Party and in many ways act as state proxies (Seyfried 2019). For example, Huawei was able to exploit its ties with the Chinese government and the BRI when it secured its recently constructed underwater high-speed internet cable between Pakistan and other BRI member states in Africa like Djibouti and Kenya (Chaudhury 2019, Chaziza 2021). The reality is that absent government guarantees, few truly private firms are willing to take on the risk of large-scale infrastructure deals in already debt ridden countries. One advantage of this system is that the Chinese government, unlike a private firm, does not have to consider risk calculations in offering their loans. While the United States has always employed both private and public sector strategies to increase economic development in Africa, China’s virtually entirely government led approach allows it to take on more high-risk and low yield projects.
Beyond providing loans and infrastructure deals, another way the Chinese government supports African economic development comes through the role it plays in providing economic consultation. It is undeniable that China’s rapid industrialization and growth during the latter stages of the 20th century was an “economic miracle,” and subsequently there is currently a great deal of interest in many developing countries to create policies to replicate these results. In Africa, this has translated primarily in Chinese consultation on the creation of special economic zones (SEZs), which were experimented with in China to great success during the Deng era. Although the concept of SEZs in Africa is not new, with many specific zones originating far before renewed Chinese interest in Africa during the early 2000s, in recent years China has sought to collaborate with African governments to create new SEZs as joint ventures with countries such as Nigeria (Seyfried 2019, Zeng 2015). That being said, the performance of some of these SEZs has come under scrutiny in recent years. In Nigeria, specifically, Chinese-Nigerian SEZs in Lagos and Ogun have been criticized for failing to support domestic manufacturing as a result of a “... lack of strategic approach” (2021 Ogbonna). Looking forward, it remains uncertain if these long term projects will provide dividends in the future.
America’s Response: A Potential Shift In The War For Influence?
By the mid 2010s, alarm bells were ringing in many Western capitals over the seismic increase of Chinese influence in Africa that had developed in the past decade. As US-China relations turned to a more adversarial tone during the Trump presidency, the Trump administration began a concerted effort to reverse encroaching Chinese influence on the continent, which is an effort that has so far persisted through Biden’s first year in office. One of the first major examples of this pivot towards Africa was the creation of the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) in 2019, which was a merger of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the Development Credit Authority (DCA), both being subsidiaries of USAID. Now under one larger authority, the DFC has been tasked to empower the private sector to specifically support development outcomes in poor and lower-middle income states by providing loans to private firms to invest and do business in Africa (Moore & Moss 2021). Also in 2019, the US government launched the Prosper Africa Initiative, which was a federal interagency program that also looked to help facilitate private sector investment in Africa. Compared to the DFC, Prosper Africa focuses much more on facilitating negotiations between private industry and African governments while also providing prospective firms with up to date government analytics on economic opportunities on the continent.
These limited actions do importantly signal intent, but in no means are in any capacity to compete with Chinese lending and investment. That being said, however, a far more persuasive cause to shift African support to the United States is more likely to come from increased concern over China’s behavior than any investment opportunities offered by the United States. Although Gyude Moore still maintains that China’s influence over Africa has been a “net-positive” for the continent, a number of growing conflicts within the relationship have opened questions over the long-term stability of Sino-African ties. The largest problem between China and Africa remains issues related to debt, which as a result of many loans to African states over two decades has fueled a debt crisis that presents numerous challenges for African governments. The concern regarding African sovereignty over Chinese infrastructure projects in the case of default naturally attracts the most Western media attention due to the high profile controversies at Sri Lanka and most recently in Uganda, but both former Minister Moore and McKinsey consultant, Dr. Christiana Seyfried, argues this threat is overstated. After all, China has in many more cases opted to extend or forgive loan payments, especially in light of the economic downturn as a result of the pandemic, and has thus far has only once triggered its collateral loan deal clauses with the singular case of Hambantota Port (Moore 2019, Paduano 2020). The far more pressing and real challenge posed by the debt crisis is the increasing inability of African governments to come up with enough money in the national budget to pay for government programs due to the increased responsibilities to pay interest on their loans to lenders like China. Although it is true that China has offered a number of interest-free loans in recent years, it was estimated in a 2021 study with the China-Africa Research Initiative that interest-free loans only represented less than 5% of China’s lending to African countries (Acker et al. 2021). Even after a considerable amount of generous debt restructuring on the behalf of the Chinese, many African nations continue to remain heavily indebted to Chinese loans, on top of many other debts to other lenders such as to Western governments or financial institutions like the World Bank. Although this might indicate that African countries would perceive debt between China and the United States as equal, the conversation again returns to the sovereignty question. While the United States and Western lending institutions have a clear track record of generous debt relief programs such as through the HIPC for a number of decades, China’s status as a relative newcomer as a lender nation creates more room for uncertainties that are only fueled by accusations of “debt-trap diplomacy” after the Chinese seizure of the Sri Lankan deep sea port. In summary, given the limited scope of recent American investment opportunities thus far, if there is anything that is going to sway African states to lean more towards Washington it would be as a consequence of reevaluating their relationship with Beijing, not due to investment opportunities offered by the Americans.
Different Capabilities & Different Interests: America’s Systemic Disadvantage in Africa
Despite American attempts to increase economic engagement with Africa during the past two administrations or increased fears about China’s role on the continent, there are many intrinsic structural reasons why the United States is unlikely to fully remove Chinese influence in Africa. The largest reason is the United States’ practical limitations as a liberal democracy that cares about issues pertaining to human rights, economic fairness, and democratic principles. The United States’ long standing policy of political preconditions is unlikely to change, while China offers loans to all interested parties—even those accused of human rights atrocities. In some cases, these policies have caused political and diplomatic troubles for the PRC. For example, China’s continued bankrolling of Zimbabwe’s brutal regime has begun to rustle feathers in many African capitals (Moore 2019). That being said, although perhaps not to the extent of Zimbabwe, there are a great number of other African states that do not meet the West’s criterion for democratic reforms or human rights but still will always be in the market for loans and financial assistance. For example, on January 1st of this year, AGOA privileges were suspended with Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, and Mali. The decision against Ethiopia was made in light of evidence of severe human rights violations in the ongoing Tigray War while Equatorial Guinea and Mali were both suspended due to illegal government coups in the year prior, as indicated in a press release by the Biden White House (2021). Ethiopia in particular represents one of the fastest growing economies in the world and a decline of engagement from the West will likely only preclude a closer economic and political relationship with China. Ethiopia, after all, is already one of the highest recipients of Chinese lending in Africa (Seyfried 2019). If the United States is unwilling to engage with brutal despots and human rights abusers, it will be difficult to prevent further Chinese influence in those states.
Another American disadvantage compared to China when it comes to winning influence in Africa stems from America’s much more hamstrung limitations to the amount of foreign aid it can expend. Although recent multilateral initiatives like the Build Back Better World Initiative have sought to improve this in some regard, it is practically infeasible that the United States will ever be able to match China in public, not private, investment into Africa. One must remember from history that while millions of Chinese starved during the Great Chinese Famine from 1958-1962, the Chinese government under Chairman Mao signed a $20 million USD (roughly $188 million USD in 2022) interest free loan to the Ghanian government, on top of a number of other economic loans and arms donations to Africa during the Cold War, instead of spending that money on their own people (Prybyla 1964). The Chinese Communist Party is completely devoid of democratic checks to limit the amount of their foreign aid spending, meanwhile an increasingly “America First” United States is unlikely to drastically increase foreign aid spending.
Finally, the US is hamstrung by a disingenuous interest in African economic development due to a greater fundamental concern of countering Chinese influence than actually investing in the economic future of Africa. Former Minister Moore articulated this dynamic perfectly at a Paulson Institute event at the University of Chicago, noting, “It seems as if the US response in Africa was not driven by Africa’s needs but by a need to respond to what China is doing in Africa” (2019). Not only does this reality explain the recent pivot to Africa in the past two administrations, but flaws within the new initiatives that were created during that period further exemplify the point. For example, the newly created DFC selectively applies environmental regulations with regards to greenhouse emissions that discriminate against poor African economies in favor of rich European allies. While the DFC supported the natural gas projects off the coast of Greece because it would diversify European energy sources away from a reliance on Russian gas, the DFC failed to approve energy harvesting projects in Africa where many millions of people live outside of electrical grids and are completely devoid of access to power (Moss & Moore 2021). The real explanation to this arbitrary application of climate change restrictions stem from a need to use aid funding as a means of waging great power competition, not to foster indigenous economic development. This observation makes much more sense when considering that much of American foreign aid has been and continues to be targeted in countries with key strategic importance to the United States. It is because of this lack of care in actual African economic development that will make regaining allies and influence on the continent increasingly difficult.
In summary, there are many reasons why Africa has drifted closer to Beijing in the past two decades. The failure of the Washington Consensus to cater towards individual African states’ economic needs and China’s focus on supporting African industrialization and infrastructure construction has caused a majority of African states to grow closer with Beijing. It is true that a recent increase of American interest in Africa paired with questionable Chinese loan repayment policies have put into question the long-term stability of China’s relationship with Africa, but given current Western attempts to increase engagement it appears unlikely that Chinese influence will be reversed. In the end, the United States lacks both the capacity or interest to match Chinese investment into Africa, giving it a major disadvantage in attempting to secure more influence. Perhaps in assessing the efficacy of American grand strategy in Africa, American foreign policy leaders can reflect on what role the United States should really have on the continent. Should the United States sacrifice its moral high ground to win the grand strategy chess game against China, or is that really the kind of country the United States ought to be? Could increased US-China competition over investment in Africa be net-positive as Africa reaps the benefits of playing both sides, or does a war for influence only drive the US and China closer to disastrous armed conflict? A sound grand strategy on Africa is necessary for both sides to navigate the uncertain future of US-China relations.
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