Should Africa be wary of China? BY Abachi Ungbo
For a long time, the United States has perched unassailable on the top of the totem pole of global leadership and economic power. However, that has come under serious challenge with countries like China materialising onto the scene, creating consternation and, in some cases, appeal.
Interestingly, Arvind Subramanian predicted that by 2030 “relative US decline will have yielded not a multipolar world but an almost unipolar one dominated by China.” The meteoric rise of China has ensured the quick spread of its influence across the globe. It has effectively short circuited the development path that the Western powers had to tread, as a consequence, incentivising the replication of some of its successful models by many developing countries.
Again, it has proved convincingly that there’s more to becoming a developed nation than flaunting democratic credentials. The world has seen how applying a home-grown development paradigm with discipline and hard work can deliver the development goods.
Since it opened its doors to the world there has been no let-up in the speed of its progress. The developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America found a willing partner in China—an alternative to the Western financial institutions—which have been taken to task for many of its too bitter to swallow prescriptions.
It goes without much saying that the Sino-Africa relationship has helped to bring about development in the continent, not least in dealing with the huge infrastructure deficit. China is breathing life into the moribund railway system across Africa; other sectors from agriculture to mining have also not been spared of the Chinese touch, which is coming at a huge cost. Thus, making China a big holder of the continent’s external debt. And, the mountain of debts is an albatross around Africa’s neck effectively driving the continent into China’s chokehold.
Much of the agreements contain confidentiality clauses that forbid the disclosure of their contents. For instance, both China and Uganda were forced to refute a rumoured takeover of the Entebbe Airport over debt issue but a probe by the parliament unearth clauses on the loan that could lead to a forfeiture in the event of a default. Also, Sri Lanka partially handed its Southern Hambantota port and surrounding 15,000 acres of land for 99 years to a Chinese company over debt repayment failure in 2017, a move the New York Times described as “an example of china’s ambitious use of loans and aid to gain influence around the world- and or its willingness to play hardball to collect.”
The Belt and Road Initiative is reminiscent of the European conquest of Africa and the ostensible rationale behind the infrastructure that was constructed—which was to facilitate the onward movement of requisite raw materials to their factories at home.
China is ready to show off its power which should really unsettle Africa that is so weak under the weight of its debts—its bellicosity towards its neighbours (Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam) over the South China Sea is a case in point. It claims about 90 per cent of the disputed sea using a “nine-dash line.”
It is an area valued for fisheries and undersea fossil fuels. China has failed to abide by the ruling of The Hague based court of arbitration which dismissed its claims. Chinese militia vessels remain active on the disputed water, according to reports.
The states involved are walking a tightrope in trying not to ruffle China while still trying to claim their rights over the area. They need aid and support from Beijing. China’s economic puissance comes in handy on such issues.
The use of power in trying to whip Taiwan, which it sees as a renegade part that must be brought back, is as worrying as the issue with Hong Kong. It boils down to the use of naked force and power. Again, it’s the new face of China which should unsettle Africa.
Africa has all that China needs in keeping the wheels of its prosperity turning. Therefore, the continent is not just teeming with Chinese cash but also its citizens. Reports on blithe violation of labour rights are thick on the ground suggesting that Africans matters less; making the description of Africa as an equal partner in development amounts to a smokescreen to assert firm control over it.
No doubt, China has filled an important space in Africa that was left by other powers. It has effectively established a foothold in the continent. It remains unrivalled with no qualms in dealing with corrupt leadership and atrocious human right records. China must work towards changing the bad optics some of its actions and behaviours are creating in making its many ‘partners’ uncomfortable.
Africans are concerned about corruption in its leadership base and the accompanying weakness in challenging the impunity of some of the Chinese corporations. Africa needs to start interrogating its engagement with China, which is by no means altruistic in getting a fair deal while building capacity in meeting its development needs.