Susannah Bain discusses the implications of China’s recent involvement in Sub-Saharan Africa
In a recent speech, President Donald Trump’s (now former) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated he was concerned about China’s involvement in Africa. His focus was on their granting loans, which, “when coupled with political and fiscal pressure,” would endanger “Africa’s natural resources and its long-term economic and political stability.”
African dependence on Chinese loans could be dangerous in the event of economic upheaval. However, Tillerson’s remarks reflect a greater concern of the United States’ government: the growth of China’s global influence. Investment from China could be used to gain political leverage in Africa and international affairs. This replicates some of the methods the United States of America has traditionally used to gain global predominance. In pursuing such activity in Africa, China are moving towards a position of widespread political influence across the world.
Over recent decades, China has become the predominant foreign power in Africa. As well as being its leading trade partner and supplying loans from the China Import-Export Bank, the world’s second largest economy provides high levels of foreign direct investment to the continent. A report by Deloitte estimated that 15.5 per cent of construction projects in Africa were funded by China, greater than the number bankrolled by private domestic investors.
The trend has rightfully attracted interest and suspicion from the global press. In January, Le Monde revealed Chinese recording devices had been found in the headquarters of the African Union. China bankrolled, supplied and constructed the building, as well as the parliaments of Seychelles, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, and Malawi. There have also been questions over the employment practices of Chinese contractors. International governments, however, have remained quiet over China’s activity in Africa. This may appear to represent a lack of concern from foreign powers. However, the silence, or lack thereof on the part of the United States, reveals a recognition of evolving Sino-African relations as a component of a realignment in the global balance of power.
The growing international role of China prevents other nations, including the United States’ strongest allies, from questioning or even mentioning its activities in Africa. Hoping to establish good relations with the superpower, they are pandering after Xi Jinping. The memorable images of Theresa May’s official visit to China in February are perhaps the most immediate example of this.
However, beyond an awareness of China’s burgeoning hegemony, European countries have historic reasons to avoid commenting on African development. In interfering they risk evoking their colonial legacy. The realness of this danger was manifest in recent comments attributed to the President of Namibia, Hage G. Geinob, by China’s official Xinhua News Agency. In response to American criticisms of Sino-African relations, he stated, “We are mature, we can choose our friends, we can choose what we want for, and what’s good for us.” The invocation of a traditional Western view of African nations being almost infantile in their underdevelopment also creates a sharp distinction between the historic involvement of Europe and the United States and that of China. Despite similar characteristics, the powers directly involved are presenting Chinese involvement in Africa as a new kind of foreign intervention.
Although the novelty of the nature of Sino-African relations is dubious, they do represent a shift in global politics. The press is right to focus on developments, as are the international leaders keen to ignore potential issues and strengthen links with the superpower. China is manoeuvring to assume a position of greater importance on the international stage. It is therefore not surprising that the government of the United States is expressing concern.