Does China have hegemonic designs in Africa?

Less than two weeks after his appointment, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited Africa for his first official trip. After Ethiopia, he is scheduled to visit Gabon, Angola, Benin and Egypt. In light of this new visit to the continent, how have China-Africa relations evolved over the past decades? How does the Chinese discourse of development assistance and non-interference particularly resonate with African countries? To what extent is the African continent becoming an increasingly important global issue? Francis Laloupo, journalist and associate researcher at IRIS, provides an update.

Every year, Chinese foreign ministers always begin their diplomatic visits with Africa. How have China-Africa relations evolved over the last few decades, and are they becoming an increasingly important global issue?

This annual tour of Chinese ministers has become a tradition, and each time it is to highlight the specificity of the links between African countries and China over the past four or five decades. Beyond trade ties, these ministerial tours, like the China-Africa summits, are opportunities for China to emphasize the unique basis of this cooperation, namely its support for African countries against external interference and for development policies that guarantee respect for national sovereignty. In short, a reminder of the principles of the Beijing Protocol… Although these relations are long-standing, they were significantly reconfigured in the early 2000s. The current pattern of relations is the result of a historical coincidence between the process of diversification of external partnerships initiated by Africa in the 1990s and the programmatic offensive of a China that is conquering the world market, but also in search of raw materials and energy resources, of which Africa is the reservoir.

China has become the leading investor on the continent and is also a privileged partner in meeting infrastructure needs and implementing major multi-sectoral projects. Djibouti is one of the crossroads of the new Silk Roads, one of the signature projects of President Xi Jinping’s term in office. Over the past decade, relations have expanded beyond the economic framework to include security issues. For example, in 2018, China became one of the top suppliers of military equipment to African militaries, just behind Russia. One-third of the weaponry imported into Africa comes from China, and some 22 African countries make up the largest customer base for Chinese military equipment.

The Chinese discourse of development aid and non-interference is particularly resonant with African countries.

It is a discourse that is all the more seductive because it revives the memory of the struggles for independence and the ideological alliance of the non-aligned against imperialism. However, times have changed, and the ideological frame of reference has been supplanted by economic urgency and the incantatory postulate of so-called “win-win” partnerships. For many Africans, relations with China act as a political alternative to cooperation with Western partners. Some believe that China’s action on the continent allows the countries of the continent to make the most of the rivalries between the Middle Kingdom and other foreign operators. In terms of development assistance, it is true that China is particularly responsive and active in various sectors of economic life, and this on attractive and favorable terms compared to other major economic partners.

However, while this cooperation is often hailed by actors for its dynamism, it has begun to produce silent disputes, notably the issue of land grabbing or that linked to the relocation of Chinese industrial production to Africa. Moreover, the long-term impact of this cooperation on the major balances of African economies must be assessed. All the indicators already show that China is on its way to becoming the continent’s largest creditor. In other words, the Chinese method of development aid could eventually prove to be a new and insurmountable debt factory for Africa.

Russia and Turkey are increasingly present on the continent and Washington hosted the second U.S.-Africa summit last month. Is the African continent becoming an increasingly important global issue?

First, because the continent remains a major provider of natural resources and other precious materials. Add to this the fact that with a population of one and a half billion, it is still considered a significant consumer pool. Moreover, given the immense needs in terms of infrastructure and multisectoral investments, the continent constitutes a particularly fertile space of opportunity for emerging powers. Furthermore, Africa is increasingly involved in international security issues. The security challenges faced by several African countries, which are inseparable from global threats and crises, have made it an important geostrategic ally over the past twenty years. The question is how to strike the right balance between endogenous security policies and the disparity of security cooperation between African regions and their various European, American, Russian, Chinese or Turkish partners. Djibouti symbolizes this aggregation of geostrategic interests, with the presence of military bases from France, the United States, Japan, Germany, Spain, and China, which has invited itself there since 2017. It is as if these military bases in the Gulf of Aden were intended to be an observatory of Africa and the world.

Finally, African countries, because of the diversity of their international alliance systems, have become objective partners in terms of the mechanisms and evolution of influence strategies on the international scene. In this respect, African countries are still considered by the great and emerging powers as indispensable allies in their strategies of influence within the framework of the United Nations. However, Africa, which is increasingly attached to the mechanisms of multilateralism, no longer wants to be confined to the role of an adjustment variable in the rivalries between the great powers. It wants to choose its partners and no longer be subjected to them. To do this, several countries will have to develop their negotiation and decision-making capacities in the field of international relations.

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