The extraordinary relationship that China has with African countries is not only a matter of having occupied a space left vacant by the heavy consciences of the old (European) colonisers, by the implosion of the Soviet Union, and by North American disinterest.
“In the 1960s, and to this day, in every coup in Africa we had big countries such as England, France or the USA trying to manoeuvre in some way to put presidents in power to play the game of their policies,” an African expert – Spanish scholar Ruiz-Cabrebra – told Sputnik News. “Above all, in the 1960s Mao’s cultural policy led to the massive sending of teachers, doctors and cultural agents.”
So, it is fair to say Africa and China have lived a near perfect marriage over the past 50 years, still in the shadow of European colonialism.
By 2013, however, this marriage was disrupted. And for unexpected reasons.
In that year, the then Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Lamido Sanusi, published an opinion piece in the Financial Times, stating:
“Nigeria, a country with a large domestic market of more than 160m people, spends huge resources importing consumer goods from China that should be produced locally. We buy textiles, fabrics, leather goods, tomato paste, starch, furniture, electronics, building materials and plastic goods. I could go on. The Chinese, on the other hand, buy Nigeria’s crude oil. In much of Africa, they have set up huge mining operations. They have also built infrastructure. But, with exceptions, they have done so using equipment and labour imported from home, without transferring skills to local communities. So China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.”
Mr Sanusi (son of a former Nigerian Ambassador to Beijing) was not the first to contest how China deals with Africa but for various reasons it caused a ripple in the pond. Turning into a form of libel against the kind of presence China was characterising itself as having in Africa.
“China portrayed the 1997 restoration of its sovereignty over Hong Kong, following more than a century of British Administration, as righting a historic injustice. Yet, as Hambantota [Sri Lanka’s strategic port handed to China] shows, China is now establishing its own Hong Kong-style neo-colonial arrangements” – Brahma Chellaney
“Africa must recognise that China – like the US, Russia, Britain, Brazil and the rest – is in Africa not for African interests but its own. The romance must be replaced by hard-nosed economic thinking. Engagement must be on terms that allow the Chinese to make money while developing the continent, such as incentives to set up manufacturing on African soil and policies to ensure the employment of Africans,” he stated. “Africa must get real about Chinese ties” generated a wave of criticism. And not just from Chinese officials or academics.
“Just as European imperial powers employed gunboat diplomacy to open new markets and colonial outposts, China uses sovereign debt to bend other states to its will, without having to fire a single shot. Like the opium the British exported to China, the easy loans China offers are addictive. And, because China chooses its projects according to their long-term strategic value, they may yield short-term returns that are insufficient for countries to repay their debts,” says Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.
Chellaney offers a fresh example: “After lending billions of dollars to heavily indebted Djibouti, China established its first overseas military base this year in that tiny but strategic state, just a few kilometres from a U.S. naval base – the only permanent American military facility in Africa. Trapped in a debt crisis, Djibouti had no choice but to lease land to China for $20 million per year.”
Especially in Africa, only a minority share these points of view. And even in the West, Chinese investment in Africa is often seen as virtuous. Five years after Sanusi’s article a recent book (China-Macau and Globalization: Past and Present) authored by former Portuguese Ambassador to China Duarte de Jesus states that “China has never wanted to sell ‘Maoist’ costumes. The Chinese way of approaching Africa, in general, with occasional mistakes, contrasts with the typical West [approach], and provides a self-fulfilling institutional void and thus enables Africans to regain ‘historical responsibility,’ which for centuries has been delegated to invaders, settlers or neo-colonisers.”
To maintain its current growth momentum China needs raw materials. And these resources lie above all in the African continent – the main Chinese ally in the world.
“Every time I visit Africa, I can assess the dynamism of this continent, which promises a bright future,” said Xi Jinping, during his last visit to Africa a few weeks ago, saying he was “fully confident in the future of Sino-African co-operation.”
Unsurprisingly, in the first half of 2018, China was Africa’s largest trading partner for the ninth consecutive year as a result of the various co-operation agreements signed between Beijing and this continent.
There are 54 countries in Africa. Only one has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the tiny kingdom of Swaziland. A few months ago, Burkina Faso cut its connections with Taipei and opened an embassy in Beijing – Sao Tome and Principe, Malawi and Gambia had done so some time before.
“We sincerely hope that this county will join the family of China-Africa friendship at an early date,” said the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi.
“China’s crude behaviour to undermine our sovereignty has already challenged the bottom line of Taiwan society. We will not tolerate it any more,” said Taiwan President Tsai, accusing Beijing of using “dollar diplomacy” to lure away the island’s allies.