Thursday, August 13, 2020

What’s China’s deal in Africa?

It is a most puzzling thing to think about. In Anglophone and Western European news media generally, coverage of Chinese presence and investment in Africa is fairly uniformly negative. China’s aims in Africa, assert Western analysis, are ‘fraudulent and deceptive’, and ‘no better than colonial exploitation’. Indeed, China’s strategy particularly in East Africa is considered to be part of a ‘new Scramble for Africa’, making that link to the historical subjugation, slaughter and violent expropriation of the continent explicit. The development initiatives China is pursuing on the African continent are ‘not working’, certainly not working for the benefit of the people of African countries. And besides, the entire model of infrastructure-led development is wrong and doomed to fail.

So, if all this is actually true – that Africa is being colonised, exploited and expropriated by amoral Chinese government officials and SOEs in the same way that it was in the nineteenth century by Europe, and indeed if this model is doomed to fail – then why does public opinion polling in the African nations which are surveyed there routinely favour China? At the end of last year, public opinion of China in Nigeria, Kenya and Tunisia was all over 50% favourable, according to Pew Research – not exactly an outlet of Chinese propaganda. Indeed, Nigeria had the most favourable opinion of China in the world second only to Russia, at 70% positive. Tunisia’s opinion of China was 63% positive. Kenya’s was 56% positive. Even South African opinion of China, at 46% positive, was significantly above the international median opinion of Chinese influence. Why do African nations seem to have such warm feelings for what Western media characterises as its brutal exploiters?

First of all, it may be necessary to point out that China’s investment in Africa is primarily connected to its desire to build up the Maritime Route and rebuild the Indian Ocean trade as one axis of the new world-system. Asserting that China has an interest in Africa tout court is somewhat misleading: most of its activity in Africa is concentrated in the East. China was the number one foreign direct investor in the following countries in 2017: Botswana, Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Malagasy Republic, Mozambique, Namibia, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. According to the American Enterprise Institute, the biggest recipients of Chinese FDI in total volume were Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia.

Notice a pattern? Most of these countries (with the exceptions of Guinea, Nigeria and Angola) belong, at least in part, to the East African region, and many of them are host to significant shipping ports on the Indian Ocean. Also, the overwhelming majority – two thirds – of Chinese FDI in Africa is aimed at the transportation infrastructure and energy (coal and petrochemicals) sectors. This is the same pattern we see with Chinese investment in places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran and Oman. We should not lose sight of these facts. The gæographical and sectoral emphases of Chinese investment suggest that China’s interest in Africa is indeed strategic, that it is aimed at rebuilding shipping lanes and energy transport vectors across the Indian Ocean, and that it does have as one of its principal aims the supplanting of Atlantic Anglo-European dominance of the world-system. Wei Yuan would deeply approve.

The overland and maritime routes of the Belt and Road Initiative

But does that make China’s investment in Africa something intrinsically nefarious, as Anglophone media routinely suggest? Is it a form of imperialism, in the same vein as the nineteenth-century Scramble for Africa? Do the people of Africa stand in danger of suffering from Chinese domination into the next century? The polling numbers from Africa show us that we must be open to the idea that more is going on between China and its African partners in development than meets the eye.

It’s a complicated question. On the one hand, much of the criticism of China’s debt policy in Africa that actually does come from the West is shamelessly hypocritical. China’s state-sector creditors have been much more generous with regard to debt relief in Africa than any Western country has been, writing off $3.4 billion and restructuring $15 billion in African countries’ sovereign debt without any of the punitive strings and demands for neoliberal restructuring that, say, the IMF and World Bank have a long and ignominious history of attaching. (Of course, this opens them to the other hypocritical charge from the West that China is coddling dictators and corrupt governments by not imposing conditions on debt. Damned if you do…)

On the other hand, China is certainly being strategic with regard to how much of African sovereign debt it forgives, and on what conditions. It isn’t doing blanket forgiveness. China does not want to let go of monetary instruments that it can conceivably use to their strategic ends described above. China is indeed behaving like a realist power and acting on behalf of its strategic national interests. From the left perspectives which privilege internationalism over realism, there are certainly substantive grounds for criticism here.

Xi Jinping with Senegalese President Macky Sall

But even from this perspective, it’s worth remembering that China has a long memory, particularly with regard to its international engagements. Both Chinese officialdom and the Chinese public still remember the 1955 Asian-African conference at Bandung which began the Non-Aligned Movement. Both Chinese officialdom and the Chinese public still remember the 1971 session in which the vast majority of the African continent – including all of East Africa with the exceptions of Malagasy and Malawi, as well as other major partners like Nigeria, Guinea and Zimbabwe – voted to allow the People’s Republic to accede to the United Nations in place of the Republic of China. It’s possible to dismiss this memory as ‘socialist nostalgia’, of course, but it remains a very real internal motivation for much of the Chinese government as well as many of the Chinese civilian businessmen and labourers who go to Africa.

With regard to China’s activity in Africa, it’s probably wisest to adopt a ‘middle-of-the-road’ perspective. China’s behaviour in Africa is driven primarily by its interests in rebuilding the Maritime Route, and African nations partnering with China would be wise to be cautious. It should not be much of a stretch for them to understand that China’s interests do not necessarily coincide with their own. On the other hand, what China is doing in Africa is clearly not the same sort of violent and exploitative expropriation that has characterised Anglo-European involvement on the continent. Their approach is far less intrusive, far less punitive and far less destructive of people’s lives and livelihoods on the bottom of the ladder. The warm feelings that African people demonstrably have for China (and vice-versa, truth be told) can be seen to rest on a very real basis. Even if the world landscape has changed significantly since 1955, there is a powerful shared history there that cannot be entirely written off.

Zhou Enlai at the Bandung Conference, 1955

1 comment:

  1. There's a long history of what I call "triangulation", where lesser powers try to straddle between two (or more) powers seeking influence. Its how the Iroquois were between France and Britain (and then Britain and the US), or how the Marathan princes were between the East India Company and the Mughals. Of course, it doesn't always work out, but political realism should expect this turn. The bitterness from western media is predominantly in losing the ability to unilaterally dictate terms, the loss of a monopoly.

    While I lack the hysteria of Chinese world domination, it should be noted that the British achieved a major part of their empire by accident. Colonists were many times there for trade/work, not with the idea of building a new world, only later integrating. Additionally, other pieces were solidified due to larger trade consideration (part of the reason why Britain got involved in Africa had to do with Egypt, which had to do with India). And so, while the idea of the Middle Kingdom ever really stretching beyond its traditional bounds seems unlikely (and implausible), certainly a global China is possible within the next century or two. Especially as workers find themselves living abroad: albeit this is temporarily and with a mind of returning, the British were not so different in certain places. I don't see this as necessarily bad (especially as China's government changes to meet these challenges), but its not the either-or of benevolent regional power or world-conquering evil. Similar analogies were drawn in Europe, combining the self-image of benevolent merchant power (UK, France, NL all contrasted themselves favorably against Iberians) against would-be universal monarch. I think the early modern contested global zones will become a more important paradigm as US hyper-power is resisted.