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Who benefits from China-Africa relations?

Cristina Krippahl
November 30, 2021

China is Africa's leading trading partner. It is also Africa's largest creditor. Experts say the relationship needs to be revamped for the benefit of the people. The ball lies in the African court, they add.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the summit in Dakar by video conference Image: Huang Jingwen/Photoshot/picture alliance

China's donation of one billion doses of its Covid-19 vaccines to Africa was among the first things Chinese President Xi Jinping promised at the 8th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Focac) in Dakar, Senegal, which started on Sunday and closes today. According to Xi, 400 million doses are to be produced in the continent.

While the announcement could be seen as part of China's efforts to burnish its image, author and researcher Helmut Asche said nothing could be gained from denigrating China's efforts. "Western donors are clearly falling short of what we should have done," Asche said, alluding to the unequal distribution of vaccines between rich and developing countries. "There are clear interests behind the Chinese side, but it also serves African purpose," Asche told DW.

China itself is increasingly angry at western criticism. Beijing's Foreign Ministry said the government was "amazed" at recent comments by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian about an alleged African disappointment with the Chinese. 

Chinese Foreign Direct Investments in Africa

Valuable infrastructure

A spokesman for the ministry in Beijing cited a survey published in November 2021 by the pan-African institute Afrobarometer, which states 63% of Africans believe China has had a positive influence in their country.

"I see the influence of the Chinese," admitted Bamidele Adekunle, adjunct professor at the Canadian University of Guelph, to DW. "When I was in Dar es Salaam, I saw lots of things done by the Chinese. And it has really transformed Dar es Salaam," said Adekunle.

Investments and credit lines extended to Africa in the last two decades have seen Beijing being accused of practicing debt-trap diplomacy on the continent. The theory goes that Beijing is seeking to saddle nations with debt to increase its leverage over them.

The fallout of hidden debt

But analyst Asche scoffed at the notion. "I sincerely doubt that it is a conscious policy. China has no interest to see African countries caught in a trap," even if the Chinese strategy of swapping infrastructure projects for mineral resources, known as the 'Angola-mode', has resulted in financial troubles for many African countries. 

The problem lies in the lack of transparency. "Half of the Chinese debt contracted by African countries is so-called hidden debt. Hidden debt means that we do not know the exact terms of repayment, the state of repayment, and so on," Asche pointed out.

In a recent study, the Johns Hopkins University's China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) found, for example, that Zambia's debt to the Chinese public and private lenders is $6.6 billion (€5.9 billion), almost double the amount disclosed by the previous government. The lack of transparency has exposed China to criticism and suspicion.

The 'Angola-mode'

Chinese interests in Africa are focused on the acquisition of commodities. According to Chinese data, the country has turned into the continent's largest trading partner, with direct trade amounting to more than $200 billion in 2019.

The trade imbalance is enormous. African products represent around 4% of China's overall imports. However, Nigerian economist and consultant Tope Fasua does not place the blame on Beijing alone. "There isn't much for the Chinese to import from Africa beyond raw material and minerals," he told DW.

Nigeria's new standard gauge train
A Chinese firm is building a new standard rail line in NigeriaImage: AFP via Getty Images

The situation will not change as long as African leaders do not demand the transferal of technologies and know-how. It would pay to learn from China itself. "For example, the first fast rail train in China was done by European companies. But the Chinese negotiated for technology transfer," said researcher Adekunle. The second set was a collaboration between Chinese and European companies. But from then on, China was able to build with no help.

The need to eradicate corruption 

That presupposes the will of African leaders to act and negotiate for the benefit of the people, said economist Fasua. He sees a new opportunity for the continent in the increased competition between the East and the West in Africa.

Expert Adekunle, who teaches at the Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, is cautious. First, corruption will need to be weeded out at all levels, transparency implemented, and processes harmonized and automated to eliminate middlemen. "That would reduce the danger of leaders taking bribes," he said.

Ghanaian staff unload Chinese medical supplies from an airplane
China has pledged one billion COVID vaccines for AfricaImage: imago images/X. Zheng

According to a report released this week by the investigative team of the Washington-based The Sentry, to approve one deal aimed at improving living conditions for the poor, the inner circle of former Congolese President Joseph Kabila received $65 million in bribes from the Chinese.

The importance of regional integration

Africans could still "really benefit" from Sino-African relations, "but it is in no way automatic," warned researcher Asche. To increase leverage in negotiations with China, Africans have to reinforce regional integration, he explained.

While he acknowledged that some efforts had been made in this respect, including starting work on a continental free trade area, "they are all free trade areas in the making and customs unions in the making. As long as that remains like that, reaping the benefits from a revamped cooperation with China will remain limited," Asche said.

Is China Africa's new colonial power?

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu