China in Africa in a time after COVID-19

Michael Koen argues that African countries need a more unified position to gain from the ongoing shifts in the role of major economic powers on the continent.

Mitarbeiter eines Herstellers für chinesisches Essen in Uganda.

Image: of Katumba Badru Sultan Ugandan workers at the opening ceremony of a new Chinese food factory, in Kapeeka, Uganda.

As Africa seeks support to address the economic impacts of COVID-19 growing geopolitical tensions between the US and China - with Europe squeezed between the two – suggest a potential shift in the role of these major economic powers in Africa. However, big events generally accelerate tendencies that were there before; they usually do not reverse the direction of events.

China, has grown in significance in Africa over the past two decades in part because of the space increasingly left open by the US and Europe, but also because of synergies between the needs and priorities of African governments and those of China which go beyond the conditionalities-based aid narrative combined with resource seeking behaviour of the Liberal powers. China is interested in securing commodity resources as are countries in the West. Yet China clearly sees the demographics of Africa not only as a market but also as a potential supply of labour as China’s labour force ages, contracts and grows increasingly expensive.

Based on its own development model and facilitated by excess infrastructure development capacity China’s engagement in Africa has, since the mid 1990’s, been focussing on infrastructure development and project financing. As a result China now holds approximately 20% of Africa’s debt. Despite the narrative of ‘debt trap lending’ spiralling out of control in Africa, the actual incidence of asset for debt swaps is low, and the growth in Chinese lending seems to have plateaued by 2015. 

It was unusual for China to agree to a multilateral debt suspension offer as recently extended by the G20 to allow some African governments the fiscal space to respond to the pandemic. Given the inadequate nature of the offer most countries will not take it up. China has, however, made it clear it will negotiate needed debt relief bilaterally. I doing so it appears to acquiesce to a multilateral agenda, but in reality will deal with African countries on a bilateral basis.

Beyond the immediate contraction of the Chinese economy, there will be - in the post COVID period - a potential for greater economic integration between China and Africa, although real partnership may still be elusive. As much as China-Africa relations are strong at the level of leadership and between state authorities, the relations between Chinese and Africans are weak, lack trust and have been at times fraught by racist incidents. The most recent example being the treatment of Africans in the city of Guangzhou and elsewhere in China during the pandemic, which led to unprecedented criticism by African governments publicly calling for an explanation from Beijing. Thus, critics in the West dub the in-kind donations of PPE, medical equipment and expertise, by China as ‘mask diplomacy,’ intended to hide the nature of China and its intentions.

This complex interplay between identity politics and economic politics is of course not unique to Sino-African relations. Events in the US following the killing of George Floyd notwithstanding, a recent flurry of activities from the Trump administration and the US ‘prosper Africa’ strategy, are clearly more directed against China than they are in favour of the so referred to ‘shithole countries,’ which are the intended ‘partners’. The EU has used the language of a true partnership of equals for over a decade, however the Cotonou Agreement and its implementation suggests anything but that. EU concerns and aid remain focussed on limiting migration from the region, and the engagement with African states has been destructive to the unified African Agenda.

If there is to be a demonstrable democratic dividend in Africa then it is the role of  African civil society and citizenry to hold states accountable and promote multilateralism, as the current narratives and strategies advanced about Africa by both China and the liberal powers undermine the space for a real multilateral African narrative and position to emerge and take effect. Gaining concessions from China and others is almost impossible for single and small economies to extract. The African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA) which was due to come into effect in July represents the largest trade deal since the formation of the WTO in 1995 with an African Union economy worth over 2.5 trillion US-Dollars. With this in mind, perhaps the most important questions at this point should be:

1. What will the role of African multilateralism be in regulating the relationships between African governments and China, the US and Europe post COVID-19?

2. How will the COVID-19 measures impact on the relationship between African states and their citizenry - and on their capacity to be able to influence and strengthen multilateralism towards ensuring that growth will be inclusive in nature.

As the AU engages with the EU at the end of the Cotonou Agreement, a unified position is now critical and could form the basis for a stronger position vis-a-vis China, not least because Europe may be seeking the middle ground between the polarising policies of Washington and Beijing.

Michael Koen is an independent worker education specialist and policy strategy consultant based in South Africa..

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