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How risky is Guinea-Bissau's China dependence?

July 10, 2024

Guinea-Bissau's overreliance on China is immense. Hardly any investment occurs without Chinese planning or financing. Some observers consider this problematic.

Umaro Sissoco Embalo and Xi Jinping walk side by side in Beijing, China.
How dangerous is Guinea-Bissau's growing dependence on China?Image: Vincent Thian/Pool/REUTERS

"The influence of China on Guinea-Bissau is undeniable, especially in economic terms," Bissau-Guinean sociologist and China expert, Diamantino Lopes, said in an interview with DW. Since the country's independence from Portugal five decades ago, almost all infrastructure measures have been carried out and financed by the Chinese, the analyst added.

"The government palace, the justice building, the parliament, the renovation of the Palace of the Republic, the 13-kilometer (8-mile) highway between the airport and Safim, the national stadium in Bissau, or the new fishing port in Bandim — the Chinese control almost everything here," Lopes explained.

This week, Guinea-Bissau's President Umaro Sissoco Embalo is in China with a high-ranking delegation. During the three-day visit, cooperation between the two countries is expected to be "further developed and intensified."

A road in Guinea-Bissau lined with cars and pedestrians
Since independence almost 50 years ago, much of Guinea-Bissau's infrastructure has been funded by ChinaImage: DW/B. Darame

Optimistic tones ahead of the state visit

Bissau and Beijing are already collaborating in the areas of education, health, agriculture, infrastructure, fisheries and defense. Ahead of the state visit, the next joint projects were announced: China will finance a large conference center for the upcoming rotating presidency of Guinea-Bissau in the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP).

Additionally, 300 kilometers of roads will be renovated. Furthermore, a new university campus for 12,000 students will be constructed, among other investments, the Bissau-Guinean president announced.

"Before we set off for Beijing, China had already announced a donation of $27.5 million (€25.4 million) for Guinea-Bissau," said  Embalo, who is currently ruling his country by special decree, bypassing parliament after having dissolved it in December. A date for the upcoming parliamentary elections has not yet been set.

Generous Chinese help or hostile takeover?

Without Beijing's support, practically nothing works in Guinea-Bissau: China is currently building the country's only highway, which connects the international airport with the town of Safim.

The most important artisanal fishing port in the country, located in Bandim on the outskirts of Bissau, was recently completed by the Chinese for $26 million. Additionally, China also donated agricultural machinery, rice and fertilizer to the government of Guinea-Bissau in 2019. In the health sector, China provides doctors for the hospital in Canchungo in northern Guinea-Bissau and for the main military hospital in the country's capital.

The Bissau-Guinean president has described China as an "indispensable partner" and praises China's stance, saying the nation "never interferes in the internal politics of an African country."

China expert Lopes has a different view on the matter: "As we all know, there are no free lunches in international relations," he warned. China always keeps its own advantage in mind and is not hesitant to demand returns for its gifts sooner or later, he added.

What returns could interest China? "China's interests in Guinea-Bissau are mainly in the geostrategic area. From the Chinese perspective, Bissau can certainly act as a gateway to the sub-region due to its location. But there are also tangible economic interests at play," Lopes said. Currently, more than 70 Chinese fishing boats are operating in nearby territorial waters. 

And the Chinese are also after Guinea-Bissau's natural resources: "Chinese companies exploit rare sands and earth in our country. Additionally, entire forests in the interior of the country have repeatedly been cut down by the Chinese in the past. Furthermore, there are oil deposits in Bissau-Guinean waters. We also have bauxite, phosphate, and other raw materials," so the expert.

Lack of transparency over contracts

Guinea-Bissau's most important export product remains cashew nuts. Until now, these cashews have been primarily exported to India and Vietnam for further processing. Now, according to rumors circulating in local media, China is preparing to take over the entire cashew harvest of Guinea-Bissau for processing in China. Officially, however, the government remains silent, the expert explained. 

"There is currently no open and critical discussion about a possible cashew deal with the Chinese, just as there is none about the over 70 Chinese fishing trawlers or the wood exports," he said.

He also pointed out that a lack of transparency was another major problem. "The contracts our government signs with the Chinese side are not discussed publicly and are not made available to the public. Therefore, the public does not know what China expects and possibly receives in return for its generous development aid," so Lopes.

Guinea-Bissau parliament building in Bissau from the exterior
The parliament building of Guinea-Bissau was built with Chinese helpImage: Bacar Camara/Xinhua News Agency/picture alliance

Exchange programs and scholarships

One of the main pillars of Chinese-Guinean cooperation has been training and exchange programs for selected groups of Bissau-Guinean society. China annually awards thousands of scholarships to the best students in the country to study at Chinese universities. Additionally, public administration and government employees regularly have the opportunity to attend short-term seminars in China.

"About 1,000 officials participate in these programs annually, which is a large number for a small country with just over 2 million inhabitants," said Bacar Camara, editor at Guinea-Bissau's state radio and a correspondent for the Xinhua News Agency, which is controlled by the government of the People's Republic of China.

These and other exchange programs have helped improve Bissau-Guineans' perception of China, Camara added. Many visit programs are explicitly aimed at so-called "multipliers," such as journalists, explained the editor, who has himself flown to China several times at Beijing's invitation. 

Women sit next to bowls containing cashew apples
Cashew nuts are still Guinea-Bissau's main export productImage: Seyllou/AFP/Getty Images

"China supports various state and private media. Our state radio, the state newspaper, and the news agency receive financial aid from China, as well as training and technical equipment," he added. Some private media have also benefited from China's help.

"The relationships date back to the 1970s when Mao Zedong's China supported our freedom fighter Amilcar Cabral in his fight against the Portuguese colonial rulers. The first soldiers of the liberation organization PAIGC [the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde — ed's note] were trained militarily in China," said Camara.

Since that time, the relations between Guinea-Bissau and China have been particularly close. Guinea-Bissau is considered a "pioneer" that can serve as a model for other Portuguese-speaking, or Lusophone, countries in Africa, but also for other countries in West Africa.

Seen this way, Guinea-Bissau would be the ideal gateway for China to pursue Chinese interests within the framework of the New Silk Road, in which projects to build and expand intercontinental trade and infrastructure networks between the People's Republic of China and over 100 other countries worldwide have been planned and implemented since 2013, so Camara.

Chinese fishing boats in a port in Guinea-Bissau
Chinese fishing boats in Guinea-Bissau. China has built a new fishing port near the capitalImage: Fátima Tchuma/DW

EU becoming invisible

"As you can see, China is the most important partner of Guinea-Bissau in almost all areas. What is new is that there is currently no serious alternative to China. And that is somewhat worrying," said Lopes.

Other potential partners are much less visible and much more cumbersome when it comes to decisionmaking and project implementation, the analyst added.

"Take the European Union: The EU has also concluded a fisheries agreement with Guinea-Bissau, but the average Guinean sees no tangible results from this agreement." While the Chinese built a new fishing port within a few years, Lopes added, the EU has not managed to expand the old port as promised. 

"The port entrance is still dirty and silted up. Large ships still cannot dock there," the analyst said. No one knows where, how, with what aim, and with what results the EU is investing in the fisheries sector in Guinea-Bissau, although the EU has been present in Guinea-Bissau for decades, so Lopes. It is very different with China.

Edited by: Sarah Hucal

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