By Jai Kumar Verma
New Delhi. 05 April 2022. When the sun set on colonialism of the British empire, the world never realised that a sun was rising in the east which would in the century to come, become the biggest coloniser and neo-colonialism started by it would have its tentacles spread far and wide. Not even the far-off continent of Africa has been spared. In fact, Africa is caught so badly in China’s neo-colonialism web that it definitely will find it difficult to get out of this trap.
The total bilateral trade between Africa and China in 2021 was $254.3 billion which is heavily in favour of China. It was about 35.3 percent more than 2020. China is biggest investor in Africa while United States is second and France and Turkey are 3rd and 4th respectively. The Xinhua News Agency claimed that China is creating 18,562 jobs every year from last ten years in the continent. China is developing infrastructure, telecommunication, energy, and agriculture sectors.
China achieved considerable success in Africa and emerged as an important aid donor from Sudan to South Africa and inculcated military relationship with many countries in African continent, which is the second largest continent after Asia. China, which eyes on the vast mineral resources of African continent and understands the strategic significance of it, is the biggest trading partner of the continent.
For more than 30 years Chinese Foreign Minister made a practice of visiting Africa at the beginning of the year. In January 2022 Wang Yi Foreign Minister of China visited Eritrea, Kenya, and Comoros. He also included Maldives and Sri Lanka in the tour. China’s first major project in Africa was 1,860-km long Tanzania-Zambia railway in the 1970s. The railway line was important as besides carrying passengers it was also used for transporting ore from Zambian copper mines to Dar-es-Salam port in Tanzania. Wang has already visited 35 countries out of a total of 54 countries in African continent.
China has constituted the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) which is an official forum between the People’s Republic of China and all countries of African continent excluding Eswatini (Swaziland) as it maintains relations with Taiwan. The first summit of FOCAC was held in November 2006 while the third and latest summit was also held in September 2018, both summits were held in Beijing. The triennial ministerial conference of the FOCAC was held in December 2021 in Dakar, Senegal. During the visit Wang also visited Ethiopia and showed solidarity with Abiy Ahmed Prime Minister who was facing civil war in Tigray, which is allegedly supported by external forces including USA. China has built an oil terminal at Mombasa and also constructing a railway line from Nairobi to Mombasa under its Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI).
Africa is important for Beijing as one third of its oil and 20 percent of its cotton comes from Africa. The mineral rich Africa has manganese in abundance which is used in the production of steel. Africa has lot of coltan, carbonatites etc. Chinese companies are also involved in export of these minerals world over.
China has also appointed Xue Bing as a special envoy for the Horn of Africa which is strategically significant. In Horn of Africa Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, and Kenya are located and China has lot of investment and a naval base in Djibouti. It is near a French and American base and is located on one of the world’s main shipping route. China has also constructed a railway line which connects Djibouti and Addis Ababa.
China has emerged as a significant investor and surpassed USA in 2014. In 2003 China’s investment in Africa was $490 million while in 2020 it became 43.4 billion. It reached $46.1 billion in 2018. Chinese main investments are in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Ethiopia, and Zambia. The investments are mainly in infrastructure construction projects, mining, transport, services, and research projects. According to rough estimates Chinese companies signed 1,141 loan agreements and gave loan worth $153 billion between 2000 to 2019.
There is acute rivalry between USA and China in Africa as the tension with both economic giants is increasing at several places including Indo-Pacific, Ukraine etc. US is realising that China is mitigating the US influence and inculcated more friends in Africa. Beijing is also constructing roads, ports, railways, and other infrastructure projects under BRI.
In January 2022 China issued an African Policy Paper which details Chinese policy towards Africa and the methods to achieve it. The paper mentions that China has established diplomatic relations with 47 African countries and is committed to the overall progress of the continent.
China emphasises that infrastructure development is necessary, although Western countries developed the infrastructure but it was with the object of exploiting the natural resources of the continent. At present Africa needs infrastructure development and China is best equipped to develop the same. China has constructed several important projects while few are under development including Coastal Railway in Nigeria, Addis-Ababa-Djibouti Railway and mega port and economic zone at Bagamoyo.
The Chinese lay debt-trap under the guise of big infrastructure development projects under BRI. The under developed nations fall in the trap as they want to achieve a better economic future. China gives them massive debt which they fail to repay. Most of the times terms and conditions of the contract which are immensely in favour of China do not come in public domain. African countries have started facing problems in repaying the loan. The cost of Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway has increased so much that it became nearly a quarter of Ethiopia’s budget of 2016. Not only this the operating cost of the railways’ is $ 70 million per year while in 2019 it earned $40 million only. Nigeria was forced to renegotiate with Chinese companies as it was unable to repay the debt. The cost of Railway line from Mombasa to Nairobi has already became four times of the previous budget.
The Chinese debt on African countries has risen to US$ 145 billion and the debt repayment in 2022 is $8 billion. The repayment burden is so much that according to reports 18 countries are renegotiating with China to reschedule the debt payment. Several countries of the world including Madagascar, Maldives, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka are finding it difficult to repay Chinese loan. Condition of Pakistan is also pitiable and its economy is shattered. Prime Minister Imran Khan criticised China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and disclosed its terms and conditions which was not liked by Chinese and now Imran Khan is on his way out.
African continent is also important politically as it has 54 countries out of which 53 recognise China. Hence besides economy Africa is important in Global strategy of Beijing. All 54 countries have vote in United Nations General Assembly hence Chinese citizens become head of several U.N. organisations like United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) etc. In this way China is making a base of supporters to regain its lost glory.
Large number of Chinese businessmen, technicians and Chinese companies had gone in different parts of African countries and strengthened ties between African continent and China. The Chinese are assisting Africans in agriculture modernization, infrastructure development, industrialisation, poverty reduction, public welfare etc.
But China is giving loan, developing infrastructure all in self-interest. Mostly China develops infrastructure projects such as Railways, ports, roads etc so that it can transport the minerals to China. Beijing conveys clandestinely that they are developing infrastructure but in return these countries have to share the mineral wealth and needs their support in BRI as well as in international forums. Not only this when the countries are unable to pay loan China would occupy their ports, arable land, roads and even the cities. Chinese debt trap is becoming more and more vicious, besides African countries several other under-developed countries would also suffer hence all should be cautious. Not only this, even the developed world should also try to counter Chinese strategy otherwise China would become so powerful that it would become uncontrollable.
(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and member of United Services Institute of India and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views in the article are solely the author’s. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)