China's Strategy for Africa in the Face of the Coronavirus

The Ivorian Academic Arthur Banga sees the issue of debt relief as the real test for China’s commitment to the continent.

Bild: von Salomon Djidjoho Most of the Chinese support - as here in the rehabilitation of the Beninese stadium - is granted in the form of loans.

Ahead of the China-Africa Forum held in Beijing in 2018, Cyril Ramaphosa had stated that we are living in "a new Golden Age of Sino-African relations". To be convinced of this, one only needs to observe that to date almost all African countries recognize China rather than Taiwan, or yet need to consider the $208.7 billion in trade exchange - the largest recorded to date - between China and Africa in 2019. However, the Sino-African courtship that has been making headway in recent years does not seem to dispel questions and uncertainties linked to the emergence of the Coronavirus. Whereby the need to ponder on the challenges and changes facing the - increasingly privileged - relationship between China and Africa in the context of a global health crisis. Beyond that, what will be the levers for relaunching China-Africa cooperation in the post-crisis period?

This issue is particularly relevant since China, and more precisely Wuhan - one of the most "Africanized" cities in China - is the cradle of the virus. This is not a trivial matter. In fact, if Beijing can boast of having contained the pandemic, this status of "cradle of the virus" tends to ruin all the efforts made to restore its image worldwide and mainly in Africa. Indeed, at a time when the technological prowess and successes of the Chinese model are more or less succeeding in erasing the bad image of "made in China" on the continent, the "china virus" - Trump's expression revealing the geopolitical rivalries surrounding the pandemic - and the controversies surrounding the number of deaths in China, such as those regarding Chinese pressure on the World Health Organization (WHO), are reopening doubts. They are giving more credence to the critics of the China-Africa axis.

Critics of Chinese investors' unwillingness to respect workers' rights, including trade deficit - which had tripled in 2019 - and China's debt burden, all find a strong argument in China's management of Covid-19. This argument is reinforced by the violence perpetrated against Africans in several Chinese cities on the grounds that the latter stimulated the emergence of a second wave. There was so much turmoil on the continent that African consuls accredited to China had to react. From this viewpoint, it can be affirmed that China's handling of the pandemic affected the sympathy accorded to China - the Middle Empire- in Africa and provided ammunition to its opponents.

That notwithstanding, the Chinese diplomacy boasts of several tools in its kitbag. Its leading experts are already working on the geopolitical stakes of this global health crisis. Accordingly, China is forging a thorough "health diplomacy" towards the continent, whilst combining both multilateralism and bilateralism. It has hastily increased its contributions to the WHO in an attempt to offset American disengagement, thus positioning itself as a champion of "health multilateralism". In addition, it has increased bilateral aid by donating equipment (tests, specialized clothing/gears, masks), dispatching health care personnel and sharing its experience. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has been called upon to help strengthen Chinese soft power. This commitment enables China to strive towards maintaining its goodwill in terms of cooperation with the continent.

In spite of this response, the Coronavirus has exposed the weaknesses of the Sino-African couple. This will have to be taken into account for a fairer relationship in the aftermath of the crisis. Action must be taken to balance the trade deficit, to strengthen technology transfer as well as other scientific and cultural aspects required to intensify this cooperation. The pending issue of African debt cancellation – notably the consequences of the African response plans on national budgets that will lead to huge deficits and a counterproductive austerity policy should said debts not be reduced by the continent's creditors, including China, the largest holder of African debts - will be a real test, a true indicator of China's commitment to the continent and the ability of Africans to take full advantage of their external relations.

Arthur Banga holds a Doctorate in International Relations from the University of Houphouët-Boigny in Abidjan and a Doctorate in History of Military Strategies from the "Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE)" in Paris. He is a researcher attached to the IRSEM (Institute for Strategic Research of the Military School of Paris). He is the author of several works and scientific publications, a large number of which are devoted to Franco-Ivorian and Sino-Ivoirian relations.


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