China in Africa: Could ‘Economic Partnership’ be Imperialistic?

By Edmond John Pamba
China’s remarkable economic rise began in 1982 after the completion of its sixth 5-year plans launched in mid-20th Century. Its economic success has now placed it as the second largest economy in the world after the United States. This naturally integrated it into the global economy. However, this integration came with competition for raw materials, energy resources, markets (trade) and global power, from other large economies, trade giants and centers of global power such as the US, EU, Japan and within BRICS. This competition descended southwards upon the developing economies of which Africa is a big part of.
China has been employing soft power to enchant African economies towards herself away from their traditional relations with the West. She has been selling to them the narrative of shared experiences and aspirations – the legacy of colonialism, the history of interference and aggression, the unequal international economic order, and the greater need for independence, sovereignty and partnership in development among developing countries. She is promoting her paradigm of ‘partnership in development,’ her epic economic success and the image of a respecter of non-interference. She has made good through unconditional loans for Africa which incidentally coincided with an exacting reality of Afro-Western economic relations, especially the characteristic conditionality of aid. Such conditionality was on good governance, human rights, accountability, democratization, and integrity of borrowing governments. Repressive and dictatorial regimes in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Ethiopia, Angola, Cameroon, Chad, and lately South Sudan (among others) found relief in China to help them respond to domestic economic challenges short of democratization.
China chose a range of areas for economic investment in Africa, from transport and storage, energy, mining and construction to agriculture, health, and communication. However, it privileged energy, transport, mining, and construction into which it invests a lot of its capital. Development has been seen in countries where China’s investments have been received and this has cultivated positive perception towards China by the local population of countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Angola, and Ethiopia. However, other aspects of China’s relations with Africa bring out the subtle path of imperialism using its soft power.
China, just like the West before it, is promoting cultural exchanges meant to sell Chinese culture and her civilizational values to Africa. This is done through Hanban, a state-run organization running a massive Chinese language and culture promoting initiative. In 2017, in Zambia, the Deputy Director General of Hanban, Xia Jianhus stated that China runs 500 Confucius Institutes across 130 countries of which 48 are in Africa. Chinese language and culture is being taught from primary school levels to faculties at universities such as at the University of Zambia (Zambia), University of Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe), and Kenyatta University (Kenya).
The other avenue of cultural imperialism is through Chinese scholarships for African students. The scholarships are attractive with good fees and stipend packages but scholars are subjected to learning Chinese language and culture while in China (though others have consideration for Anglophobes). This programme expanded from 2,000 students by 2003 to 50,000 by 2015. The number of Africans speaking Mandarin and excited to go to China on scholarship is growing, and this means, given time, Chinese cultural values and language will have gained more territory in Africa. This civilizational crusade was clearly depicted at 2017 Annual Springs Festival Gala in Beijing, where a skit was performed depicting African culture and civilization as primitive. An African character played the monkey, an African woman was depicted as funnily formed and generally, the impression was that Africans were so grateful for China’s civilizational help in Africa’s development.
According to AidData, Chinese loans are more invested in resource rich countries especially those with deep energy (oil) reserves and extractive minerals. This is meant to serve China’s net demand for energy resources for her industrialization (currently the largest net oil importer in the world) and for sustaining her global trade in minerals. For instance, China alone accounts for 40% of global trade in base metals – iron, copper, bauxite, aluminum, manganese, and phosphate. Africa occupies part of her crucial supply chain- Algeria (Manganese), Ghana (Bauxite), Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone (Iron), Namibia (Uranium), South Africa (Chrome, Flourine, Copper), Togo (Phosphate), Zambia (Copper) and Zimbabwe (Ferrochrome)- where Chinese mines abound. Top recipients of financial loans (Other Financial Flows – OFF) such as Angola, Ethiopia and Sudan, and top ODA recipients such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Tanzania and Ghana are also characteristically resource rich.
AidData also observes that China’s ODA is way lower than ODA from Western quarters (does not qualify the West as not imperialistic). Also, Chinese capital outflows to Africa are less concessional (ODA) and more commercial (OFF). This clearly dissects Chinese economic diplomacy in Africa as less development aid-oriented and more commercial lending-oriented. This will escalate capital flight from Africa to China ultimately. AidData also observes that more of Chinese ODA is increasingly related to China’s UN voting. China is using its development aid and unconditional loans to buy support for its UN agenda from African member states and this points to her global ambitions.
The issue of debt trap is so crucial in China’s imperialistic designs. Some of its loans to resource rich African countries are backed by mineral resources instead of cash payments. For instance, the USD 2 Billion loaned to Angola between 2004- 06 was backed by oil. Angola agreed to supply China with 10 000 barrels of Angolan crude per day for a period of 17 years. These resource concessions in effect leave respective natural resource-dependent African economies with strained capacity to raise their own revenues. In other instances, recipients offer sharing of equity in Chinese funded projects as in Colombia and Sri Lanka (Hambantota Port – 99 years leasehold for China Merchants Port Holdings). This ‘debt trap diplomacy’ has led to other countries turning down Chinese loans. Myanmar cancelled a hydro-electric power project with China in 2011, Pakistan cancelled a USD 14 Billion Diamer-Basha dam along Indus River choosing to fund it herself, and Nepal also cancelled USD 2.5 Billion hydroelectric plant project with China.
Chinese aid is also widely regarded as unconditional but it is tied all the same. It is unconditional to lure African governments shy of accountability, good governance, democracy, and respect for human rights who face it difficult with Western conditional aid. This promotes bad governance and corruption in Africa which undermines economic development that China proffers as central to Sino-Africa relations. The aid is tied to Chinese supplies and services. This locks the domestic supply industry from benefiting from Chinese projects and locals from employment, and promotes China’s economic gain. It also blocks technological transfer since the Chinese prefer their own expertise in the projects. Blocking technological transfer is not a gesture of ‘partnership in development’ but of wanting to exploit the gaps for economic gain on the part of China.
Chinese unconditional loans also promote regime security over human security in the same sense. It has helped dictatorial and repressive regimes to flourish at the expense of political change for popular democratic gains. This ensures a compliant system (cohort African governments) for Chinese imperial interests. Also, these financial loans, Chinese bidding for infrastructural projects and equity investment by in Africa, sometimes fall short of established legal thresholds and standard practices. This is happening in the environment of corruption in Africa, and only exacerbates it. This puts China’s commercial interests and African leaders’ impunity and vested interests above sustainable development objectives. This was proved in Nepal when its new Deputy Prime Minister, Kamal Thapa, cancelled an agreement on funding for a dam otherwise signed by the former Prime Minister, Pushpa Dahal, citing corruption and irregularities during bidding.
China’s role in infrastructural development is commonplace in Africa. It has won about half of Africa’s new public works contracts with infrastructural projects in over 35 African countries in transport, energy generation, water and others. For example, it is in railway construction in Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Gabon, Tanzania, Mauritania, Angola, and hydro-power generation in Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Zambia and Mozambique among other projects. This is, however, impacting negatively on local expertize in the construction industry. China, in this case, appears as a competitor rather than a partner. Justification could be its technological advancements but its corrupt bidding procedures (offering kick-backs among other malpractices) have played a role in the favourable position.
China is also credited with funding and construction of African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It is currently set to fund and construct ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja and new parliament buildings for Zimbabwe, DR Congo, Malawi, Guinea Bissau, Lesotho, Gabon, and renovation of the same for Sierra Leone. However, Le Monde had established possible bugging of African Union headquarters by the Chinese for spying purposes. Loads of data of proceedings were alleged to have been transmitted to China at night. Despite denial by AU and Beijing, the headquarters’ security was overhauled, Chinese equipment replaced, and new firewalls put up. It is anyone’s guess whether this bugging and spying might be extended to the new parliament buildings to be built by China across Africa. This would serve as information imperialism, breach of sovereignty and gross violation of the security of African nations.
China has also organized a China-Africa Think Tanks Forum which brings together top intellectual communities on both sides. This forum is meant to develop independent, home-grown and South-South solutions to development, political and technological challenges of Africa. Despite this initiative looking good at face value (visible intent and purpose), China seeks to influence Africa’s top intellectual influencers to in turn help in influencing government policies in Africa to reflect Chinese thought, philosophies and models. It is possible to project that China might move into the education sector and influence content and curriculum and thus have full capture of Africa.
Lastly, China opened its first naval base in Djibouti in 2017, in the Horn of Africa. This is despite her own principle of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of other nations especially developing nations with which they have shared history of foreign threats, domination and exclusion. Though she denied militaristic and geopolitical purposes of the base and emphasized humanitarian purposes, it does not suffice to disabuse the perception of imperialism and global military aggrandizement for that end, on the part of observers. Her second military base is allegedly earmarked to be built at the Port of Gwadar in Pakistan, and China has given logistical or operational reasons for its construction. That it will operate as a service port for China’s trade and escort naval ships. However, the Sino-American and Indo-China trade competition and power rivalries in this region may also be served by these bases. This still casts China as a rising imperial power.
The world has to read China’s intentions through the lens of soft power (cultural exchanges, unconditional loans, development partnership image), clever strategic partnerships (security, energy, minerals, UN lobbying), her management of debt (equity sharing, mineral and infrastructural concessions) and her military aggrandizement.
Africa needs to rethink her engagement with China to avoid another period of imperialism under a new power. African countries need to stop the race to the bottom by emphasizing procedural rules and laws of bidding and soliciting. They need to insist and condition their contracts on technological transfer benefits. They also need to renegotiate lending terms and untie Chinese aid to stop net capital flight, promote employment locally, and boost domestic industries. These countries also need to rationalize borrowing with economic elasticity at home, lest they over-borrow and fall into the Chinese debt trap. They need to be nationalistic on matters of culture and social relations, economic relations, security, sovereignty and UN voice to limit Chinese imperialistic overtures upon them. If this approach is guaranteed, then Africa will achieve significant economic independence and political flexibility within which to grow domestically and rise globally.
Edmond John Pamba is a Research Assistant at the HORN Institute


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