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China’s ties with Africa go beyond the “debt trap”

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Authors: Do Quynh Anh & Francis Kwesi Kyirewiah*

Over the past decades, there have been numerous arguments about China’s relations with Africa which is seen as the foundation of Beijing’s diplomacy. Some scholars have linked China-Africa relations to a new form of colonialism and resources diplomatic strategy of China. For historical and political reasons, China has been close with African countries because they share common past of their former colonial suffering and the common tasks of promoting their economic development. Now as the largest developing country as well as the second largest economy of the world, China’s economic relations with Africa en bloc is obviously changing from the previous low-technology aid to a rapidly medium- and high-technology assistance. To that end, China is able to provide more financial aid to all the developing countries including Africa.

To be sure, it is normal for any country to provide aid to each other in terms of borrowing and lending. Historically and politically, the parties involving international financial interactions might end up as enemies. Professor J. A. Frieden, of Harvard once argued, in general, developing countries are by definition short of capital, so most of their governments are eager to borrow abroad. It is therefore presupposed that the prospect of using borrowed money is to speed up growth and increase national output. Yet, sometimes the borrowers could have little incentive to use the money wisely. It is also true that the lending powers have used or misused or even abused the financial weapons available: they can cut off debtor governments from future lending, and they may be able to retaliate in related areas, such as freezing debtor governments’ bank accounts or taking other government-owned properties. Equally noted is that lending governments are able to use broader foreign policy considerations to induce the borrowing side into compliance with the lenders’ demands. That is true in terms of many cycles of lending and debt crises. For example, all through the 19th and early 20th centuries, rapidly growing countries borrowed heavily from the major European financial creditors, primarily London but also Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin. Usually, debts appear to have contributed to economic development, but there are also plenty of crises and political disputes. Therefore, debt crises have existed in world politics for centuries, and now it appears in a new face as “debt trap.”

China’s relation with Africa is relatively new due to the fact that the rise of China and the independence of Africa are the most recent scenario over the past 40-60 years. As Dr. DambisaMoyo, a scholar in international affairs anda native from Zambia, argued, “No country has come to symbolize the profound economic transformation witnessed in the past half-century than China. It has become the largest exporter and the largest foreign currency-holder of the world and it has already surpassed Japan to rank second in terms of GDP.” By 1978, China’s world GDP share was only 1.75%, but since then, it share has risen up to 17% in 2017.Today China is the largest FDI source to Africa and the bilateral trade has been rising substantially. The resultant fact is not necessarily because of China’s smart policy, but equally due to the West’s own folly policymaking.

Yet, China has been targeted by the West headed by the United States as the “debt-trap maker”. The reasons might be different but it argues that China has tried to use its increasing financial power to dictate its Communist will and nationalistic goal in the world affairs, in particular towards the Africans. This is really ridiculous. First, a closer look into the Marshal Plan endorsed by the United States in 1948 to assist European recovery from the war-time destruction, the West called it the “European Recovery Plan” which aimed to invest billions of U.S. dollars to help the war-worn states of Europe. However, when they discuss the economic plan from Beijing and Moscow, they use the terms of traps and conspiracy, such as “Beijing’s expansion is inexorable, has a global scope and is driven by the depression in the West.” Ideologically, the United States has tried to distort any Chinese economic plan including the “Belt & Road Initiative”. Second, the United States and many other countries of the West as well have entertained the mentality of their superiority. They do hold the perception that Europeans are the only most creative people on the Earth. Thus the rise of China is surely regarded as the loss of their superiority and prestige as well. In light of this, the third point is that they have perceived China as a potential or even a real rival or enemy in a geopolitical sense, as U.S. politician Mike Pompeo has repeatedly targeted China both publicly and privately.

However, the relationship between China and Africa has gone beyond the so-called “debt trap diplomacy”. From the mid-1950s, China was committed to supplying all possible aid and supports to the African peoples who were struggling for their national independence, while newly-independent states consistently extend their supports to China diplomatically and politically. Since the last decades of the 20th century, China-Africa relations have been primarily focused on economic cooperation. With its economic power growing, China’s aid has been focused on infrastructure development, consisting of constructing railways, roads and hydropower to business cooperation such as mining, farming and tourism. In return, Africa has made all possible efforts to improve its investment and business environment in order to protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies. This is now urgent for both sides need to work decisively to transform and upgrade the quality and efficiency of the cooperation in strategic terms. As Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto argued, it is quite possible for there to be an action in an economy that harms no one and helps at least one by one. Whether it is accepted or not, China’s sustained growth can’t be in isolation from the rest of the world in a long perspective.

China’s aid to Africa has never been a lip-service as it believes that in order to insure sustainable economic growth, it is strategically necessary for any country, either small or large, to have a complete transportation network and reliable power-supply system. This is what is referred to as ‘two wings theory for development.’ Today, most African countries lack basic transportation system and sustainable power supply for accelerated and sustainable economic development. For example, agreements signed in various fields between China and Africa wasvalued at over $50 billion between 2015 and 2016. Most African states have been eager to accelerate their national industries’ production capacity in order to achieve their economic independence. Thus far, Chinese companies have been instrumental in the construction of numerous symbolic infrastructure projects, including but not limited to the newly-completed railwayline connecting the capital of Kenya (Nairobi) to its coastal city and port hub of Mombasa, and the highly anticipated network of Chinese-built railway in East Africa. In addition, China is currently the largest contributor to peacekeeping missionin Africa,rangingfrom non-combat peacekeepers in medical and engineering servicesto the deployment of troops in Sudan.

For sure, China’s overall capacity in Africa has been much greater than 50 years ago when it started the first railway from Tanzania to Zambia during the Cold War heydays. Now is the time for China to link infrastructure development to a grand strategy, such as “the Belt & Road Initiative” proposed by Chinese President Xi in 2013. This is manifested by the completion of the railway line from Nairobi to Mombasa in 2018. Politically, according to the consensus between China and Africa, the leaders of the two sides vowed to promote their comprehensive ties to a new-level of strategic partnership. Also unlike Western foreign-aid policies, which generally prioritize political issues and social values, China’s aid has been primarily driven to economic issues. On one hand, this is consistent with China’s adherence to non-intervention policy in domestic affairs of other states. On the other hand, both China and Africa look forward to a future of unprecedented transformation on the launch of the Nairobi-Mombasa railway  that would not only revolutionized the transport sector of Kenya, but also more important stimulating investments in advanced manufacturing in Kenya and African as a whole.

For China, the pace of transformation of Africa has been remarkable. Even though its short-term goal remains economic and diplomatic, it seems inevitable that China’s basic interests will eventually lead it to far greater involvement in the continent. Though diverse in both economics and politics, Africa remains sided with China on international issues, and this quasi-alliance strictly delimits the scope of Sino-African collaboration and the opportunity to assist in the formation of Chinese conceptions and strategy in the world politics for decades to come. It is true that Chinese leaders are well-aware of this advantage.

In conclusion, China has high expectations for Africa as the latter has an immense reservoir of resources to spur its envisioned growth and China’s economic growth. As a rising power, Chinawillwork in conjunction with Africa towards the creation ofa more just and impartial world order and that places the East Asian giant in a stronger position to provide more substantial aid to Africa under win-win cooperation. As expressed at the G-20 FM meeting in Bonn in 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister reconfirmed that China would carry on enhancing strategic relationships with Africa. China would alsoabide by the key tenet which aims to develop the local, regional and international economics in light of “Africa’s initiative, Africa’s consent and Africa’s first”. Due to this, China’s strategic partnership with Africa is patently beyond the debt trap diplomacyin terms of Beijing’s global strategy.

*Francis Kwesi Kyirewiah, a PhD student in International Affairs, at SIPA, Jilin University, China.

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Africa

Reducing industrial pollution in the Niger River Basin

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The Niger River is the third-longest river in Africa, running for 4,180 km (2,600 miles) from its source in south-eastern Guinea, through Mali, Niger and Nigeria, before discharging via the Niger Delta into the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. Tributaries that run through a further five countries feed into the mighty Niger.

Hundreds of millions of people in West Africa depend on the river and its tributaries, for drinking water, for fish to eat, for irrigation to grow crops, for use in productive processes, and for hydroelectric power.

The health of the Niger River Basin is vitally important for the people and for the environment of West Africa. But this health is endangered by land degradation, pollution, loss of biodiversity, invading aquatic vegetal species and climate change.

To both assess and address these environmental issues, a Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded project has brought together international, regional and national entities to work on integrated water resources management for the benefit of communities and the resilience of ecosystems. (Project details can be found here.)

One part of the early project research found that as the Niger River passes through Tembakounda, Bamako, Gao, Niamey, Lokoja and Onithsa – major trading, agro-processing and industrial cities – wastewater and other polluting substances are discharged directly into the river, often without consideration for the environment. National governments of the countries which the river runs through are either unable to deal with the accumulated environmental problems and/or are ineffective at preventing, regulating, reducing and managing pollution from industrial activities.

For this reason, one component of the GEF project, implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), will facilitate the Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology (TEST) to reduce wastewater discharges and pollution loads into the Niger River.

Despite the limitations on travel resulting from measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus, in August this year, UNIDO successfully identified and engaged with 19 pilot enterprises in various sectors, including pharmaceuticals, mining and agribusiness, operating in ‘pollution hotspots’ in the countries of the Niger River Basin. This number exceeds the original target of one enterprise per country. 

UNIDO experts are now introducing and sharing the Transfer of Environmentally Sound Technology (TEST) methodology with the pilot enterprises. In essence, this will mean the application of a set of tools including Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production, Environmental Management Systems, and Environmental Management Accounting, which will lead to the adoption of best practices, new skills and a new management culture.

Armed with these tools, the enterprises will be able to reduce product costs and increase productivity, while reducing the adverse environmental consequences of their operations. An awareness-raising campaign will be carried out so that the demonstration effect resonates across the Niger River Basin, prompting other enterprises to follow suit.

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Wagner: Putin’s secret weapon on the way to Mali?

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Soldiers from the Wagner Group (source: middleeastmonitor.com)

France is outraged at the prospect of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group arriving in Mali. However, Paris is seeking a way out of an unwinnable conflict.

On September 13, a Reuters news agency article citing unnamed sources and reporting advanced negotiations between Mali and the Russian mercenary company Wagner sparked a firestorm of reactions. The United States, Germany, and the United Nations have all warned Bamako’s military against such collaboration. According to them, the arrival of Russian mercenaries – a thousand have been estimated – would jeopardize the West’s commitment to fighting the jihadists who control a large portion of Malian territory.

But France, understandably, is the most vocal against such a move. The former colonial power has maintained a military presence in the country since 2013, when it halted the jihadists’ advance on the capital. Florence Parly, the French Minister of the Armed Forces, visited Bamako on September 20th to warn Malian colonels in power following two coups in August 2020 and May 2021. Wagner’s choice, she said, would be that of “isolation” at a time when “the international community has never been so numerous in fighting jihadists in the Sahel”.

What the minister does not mention is that France’s commitment to Mali is waning. Emmanuel Macron used the second Malian coup d’état last June, less than a year before the French presidential election, to announce a “redeployment” of French forces in Mali. Although Paris refuses to discuss a de facto withdrawal, even if it is partial, the truth is that the tricolored soldiers will abandon the isolated bases of Kidal, Timbuktu, and Tessalit in the country’s north by next year, concentrating on the area further south of the three borders with Niger and Burkina Faso.

Europeans, who are expected to be more supportive of France, are also perplexed. The humiliation of the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has served as a wake-up call. The Afghan government’s sudden collapse in the face of the Taliban has demonstrated how difficult it is to build a strong army and institutions. This scenario appears to be repeating itself in Mali.

The possibility of a rapprochement between Bamako and Moscow is taken seriously because Putschists in Mali have always been sensitive to Russian offerings. Colonel Sadio Camara, Mali’s Defense Minister, visited Russia on September 4. Disagreements over a reversal of Mali’s alliances are said to have been one of the causes of the Malian colonels’ second coup, which ousted the civilian transitional government last May.

Russia also acts as a boogeyman for the Malian military. According to a Daily Beast investigation, the Malian army organized a supposedly spontaneous demonstration last May demanding Russian intervention. This was also a warning to the international community, which is growing weary of the country’s poor governance and repeated coups.

Is Mali transitioning from the French to the Russian spheres of influence? Since Moscow gained a foothold in the Central African Republic, the scenario is not a figment of the imagination. Russian instructors and Wagner’s mercenaries have proven their worth in this former French backyard. Even though the UN condemns Russia’s atrocities in this conflict, the Russians were able to push back the rebels who were threatening the capital Bangui last December with the help of UN peacekeepers and Rwandan reinforcements.

The Kremlin denies any involvement with the Wagner group. However, the company is actually run by a close associate of Vladimir Putin. The use of private mercenaries allows Moscow to avoid military commitments abroad, as it did previously in Ukraine and Libya. “Russia is not negotiating a military presence in Mali,” said a Kremlin spokesman in mid-September. When questioned by the magazine Jeune Afrique on September 20th, Central African President Faustin-Archange Touadéra swore that he had “not signed anything with Wagner.” “In the Central African Republic, we have companies that were established in accordance with the law and operate on liberalized markets,” he explained.

Nothing has been decided on Wagner, it is repeated in Bamako. According to the military, the selection of foreign “partners” is a matter of Mali’s “sovereignty.” They regard these “rumors” as an attempt to “discredit the country.” The Malian junta is under siege, not only from jihadists but also from the international community. The latter is calling for elections to be held in February to return power to civilians, as stipulated in the military-agreed transition charter. Electoral reform must come before the election. However, Colonel Assimi Gota, the transitional president, has shown little interest in preparing for these elections. The Malian junta may also be hoping that Russia’s partners will be less stringent on democratic requirements.

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Google Drives Deeper into Africa

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As the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the new initiative that places emphasis on intra-African trade – including free movement of goods, capital  and people – foreign players have accordingly raising eyes on using the new opportunity to expand their operations in Africa.

Foreign enterprises are gearing up to localize production in industrial hubs and distribute their products across the borderless territory considered as a single market in Africa. Thus, by its description, Africa’s estimated population of 1.3 billion presents itself a huge market – from baby products through automobiles and to anything consumable.

Google LLC, the U.S. Global Technology Gaint, has primarily set its eyes on business, with a comprehensive plan to expand its operations into Africa. Google made known its plans to commit US$1 billion over the next five years in tech-led initiatives in Africa. It is investing this US$ 1 billion in Nigeria and African countries to support and transform the digital market over the next five years.

In its media release, it said the investment would include landing a subsea cable into the continent to enable faster internet speeds, low-interest loans for small businesses, equity investments into African startups, skills training and many more directions determined in future.

This is in a bid to enable fast, affordable internet access for more Africans, building helpful products, supporting entrepreneurship and small business, and helping nonprofits to improve lives across Africa.

The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Google and Alphabet, Sundar Pichai, noted that the company was building global infrastructure to help bring faster internet to more people and lower connectivity costs. Through the Black Founders Fund, Google will invest in Black-led startups in Africa by providing cash awards and hands-on support.

The developing world represents the best chance of growth for large internet companies, and today, one of the very biggest set out its strategy for how it plans to tackle that.

“We’ve made huge strides together over the past decade – but there’s more work to do to make the internet accessible, affordable and useful for every African. Today, I’m excited to reaffirm our commitment to the continent through an investment of US$1 billion over five years to support Africa’s digital transformation, to cover a range of initiatives from improved connectivity to investment in startups,” said Pichai.

According to him, this is in addition to Google’s existing support through the Google for Startups Accelerator Africa, which has helped more than 80 African startups with equity-free finance, working space and access to expert advisors over the last three years. The subsea cable is set to cut across South Africa, Namibia, Nigeria and St Helena, connecting Africa and Europe.

According to Managing Director for Google in Africa, Nitin Gajria, it will provide approximately 20 times more network capacity than the last cable built to serve Africa. It is projected to create about 1.7 million jobs in Nigeria and South Africa by 2025 as the digital economy grows.

Google further announced the launch of the Africa Investment Fund, where it will invest US$50 million in start-ups across the continent providing them with access to Google’s employees, network, and technologies to help them build meaningful products for their communities.

It will additionally disburse US$10 million in low-interest loans to small businesses in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa in order to alleviate hardships brought about by the Covid pandemic.

Google is bringing venture capital into the continent. The fund might work in a similar fashion as the Google for Startups Accelerator programme.

Although Africa has a Big Four (Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Egypt) in terms of startup and venture capital activity on the continent, the accelerator has made sure to accept applications from startups in less-funded and overlooked regions. These countries include Algeria, Botswana, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Founded in September 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google is considered as one of the Big Five information technology companies alongside Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. Google specializes in internet cloud services, software and hardware as well as online advertising technologies.

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