In the wake of turbulent trade agreements and international controversy, China continues to focus on its relationship with Africa.
During the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held in Beijing in September last year, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed the continuing investment into the continent from China.
The leaders discussed future advancements and announced China’s plan to invest $60 billion of new developments with “no political strings attached”. In the past, President Kagame has been critical of foreign aid entering the country.
In 2009, he told that “The cycle of aid and poverty is durable: as long as poor nations are focused on receiving aid, they will not work to improve their economies,”. However, this view differs when it comes to China’s relationship with Africa, stating during the forum that “The relationship between Africa and China is based on equality, mutual respect and a commitment to a shared well-being. Working closely together to assess implementation will further enhance the quality of this process.
It is time for Africa to step up as well.” This relationship has been criticised by numerous Western nations, especially considering China’s recent focus on the “One Belt, One Road’ policy, which has seen China establish numerous international trade routes. Nevertheless, the relationship between the two has grown over a long period and has reached its current state due to a combination of China often offering a better deal and a decrease in Western investment into the region following the financial crisis.
The modern Sino-African relationship dates to the Second World War and has since seen substantial growth. What started as $1 billion of trade in the 1980s has expanded to $128 billion in 2016. This trade relationship has grown despite claims of the West that the actions are predatory and that they are the result of Chinese influence.
This is especially concerning for other nations such as the United States, who have expressed concerns over the renewed deals for oil between South Sudan and China, as the former produces 120,000 barrels per day.
There have also been fears of China using debt-trap diplomacy, which sees a state extend or set aside a debt for concessions.
However, these fears are not held by President Kagame who appears fully aware of the dangers. During the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, President Kagame explained that “Our growing ties with China do not come at anyone’s expense. The gains are enjoyed by all who do business with us. Building the capacity of African institutions to transact and monitor more effectively is what will make the biggest difference.”
This indicates a greater understanding of the pitfalls that can befall African nations should they not properly invest in infrastructure that will accelerate the production capital that will allow them to grow. Moreover, Africa finds it easier to get soft-loans from China compared to from other international actors, enabling Africa to avoid pressure from international institutions like the World Bank.
The corroboration and understanding between both sides have allowed Africa to pursue alternative development paths and aid, such as China’s financial involvement in the IGAD South Sudan mission that saw them invest US$500, 000 towards peace in South Sudan. All these aspects have allowed China to gain a profit from the continent, especially considering the economic crises that minimised Western presence in the region.
China’s continued investment in Africa and the perks that it has offered have been far more competitive than those offered by Western nations. If the West is to achieve a stronger and healthier economic relationship with Africa, it needs to change how it deals with the region. Firstly, strong trade between both continents must be ensured. While trade between Europe or the United States with African countries has not faltered in recent years, a greater attempt at creating stronger economic ties and infrastructure between the three is needed.
The United States does appear to be working towards this with the recent New Africa Strategy announced by John Bolton last month. However, the strategy is still geared towards benefiting America rather than both sides. While the change in aid policies is a step towards better, more respectful relations, it will not be enough to sway Africa into risking its relations with China.
The reason for America’s recent hardship in the region, especially in the oil industry, is that China has laid the foundations by forging relationships and extending roots into the states themselves. If America wishes to increase its standing in the eyes of African states, it has to be seen as willing to provide something equal to or exceeding China’s recent offerings: chances to improve infrastructure, engaging Africa as an equal trading partner rather than just a recipient of aid, and to be willing to engage with the countries for more than simply the use of oil or to outdo China.
Europe will also need to be willing to engage more meaningfully if it seeks to improve its standing. For Europe, history may prove to be one of the hardest things to overcome, but it is important to remember that the European Union already enjoys a strong relationship with West Africa: it remains the strongest trading partner within the Sub-Saharan Africa region where data from the European Commission indicates that they were exporting €28 billion and importing €24.9 billion from the region in 2017.
Complicating the relationship between these three is the fact that Africa has often found itself stuck with export tariffs and taxes, which have soured the trading relationship between African nations, the United States and Europe due to increased protectionism in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis.
Reversing these conceptions will be the key to building a healthy relationship with the continent. If Europe and America can start engaging with Africa as a trading partner rather than simply a resource and aid sink as China has done, they will be able to construct healthier mutual communication and state relations.
Moreover, if these two powers can work past their recent history of protectionism to offer African Nations a more lucrative deal, they may be able to reach the level of trust seen in Sino-African relations.