The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative envisages linking China with Africa, Asia and Europe through a network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks Image Credit: AFP

China’s support for the ideologically driven freedom movements in Africa during the Cold War years was paid back when African vote in 1971 got China past the hump to claim its seat at the United Nations.

While their interest in each other is the legacy of those times mutual economic and strategic interests have drawn them closer over the years.

China’s commercial engagement with Africa ballooned especially since the time China opened its economy. China – Africa trade has grown 40-fold in the last 20 years and is now Africa’s biggest trading partner and the top lender.

Throughout the continent China has built soccer stadiums, hospitals and other buildings that touch lives of ordinary folks who still carry scars of centuries of humiliation through Western colonialism.

China’s latest multi-trillion, multi-country, multi-ocean Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has provided another ambitious platform for its engagement with the African continent.

Africa needs investment

Long marginalised, Africa badly needs foreign investments that Chinese companies are more willing to provide. Like the Chinese culture, these companies take a long-term view and are not easily deterred by human rights or non-official roadblocks to project development in Africa.

The UN predicts that there will be more Africans than Chinese by 2025. Given Africa’s youthful population and that in 2020 six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies were in Africa, China invests heavily in the continent. Of particular interest to China’s rapidly developing economy is Africa’s abundant natural resources, which also include strategic minerals.

Chinese finance and contractors have therefore, literally reshaped Africa’s infrastructure by building new ports, railways and roads. Chinese investments in manufacturing, mines and commercial real estate has also been substantial.

Mckinsey, one of the top consulting firms in the world suggests that insofar as Africa is concerned “no other country matches this depth and breadth of engagement.”

In addition to the state enterprises 90 percent of over 10,000 Chinese companies operating in Africa are privately owned who find investing in Africa comparatively profitable. So, they keep reinvesting. The worry is the poorly governed states where China has poured in a lot of money into projects that may turn out to be white elephants, compelling China to write-off loans.

Another area where China focuses heavily is education. China gives tens of thousands of scholarships to African students. This has led to African students to China surpassing those going to US and Britain combined since 2014, which creates a huge reservoir of goodwill for China.

Various other training programs create a massive network of human resource throughout Africa. For instance, more than half the South Africa’s African National Congress executive committee members have had training in China.

In pursuit of its engagement policy China has set up Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) that includes China and 53 of 54 African states. Meeting every three years alternating between China and Africa, the Forum draws more heads of African states than at the annual UN General Assembly. 

Thankfully Africa is recording just about 5 percent of global COVID-19 cases and China has been quick to provide medical equipment and has also joined in with WHO and G-20 initiatives, meant to assist less privileged states.

The rise of China

China’s rise and its involvement at global stage and regional levels in different parts of the world has attracted claims of strategic competition and rivalry between China and the US. Fearing erosion of its influence the US has adopted an aggressive posture to counter increased Chinese involvement worldwide.

In Africa, the US has historically had relatively minimal strategic interests that China could significantly threaten. Therefore, the increased Chinese penetration in Africa has not drawn the level of American bellicosity that it has drawn against China in Southeast and South Asia.

The US and Japan have tried to increase infrastructure development allocations but nowhere near the scale of BRI. The US Secretary of State recently alerted African states that China is out competing the US and that African states should scrutinise the Chinese assistance.

The fact is that despite substantial spending in specific areas, America currently does not match what China offers to the African nations.

China is the ready partner in the continent’s need for new roads, bridges or other infrastructure projects. Huawei has not lost a single order in Africa despite alleged US pressure in some cases. 

No country is ‘indispensable.’ The rise and fall of great civilisations has occurred throughout history.

If history was static we would all still be a part of the Roman empire.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 during which time he served as ambassador to several countries.