For many years now China has been actively expanding its economic presence in Africa. Accomplishments of the “Celestial Kingdom” are truly impressive. Currently, China is one of Africa’s biggest trading partners. More than a thousand Chinese companies have operations on the continent, and loans and investments that Africa receives from the PRC amount to dozens of billions of US dollars.
China is actively exploiting African resources by taking vast quantities of hydrocarbon-based fuels, timber and agricultural products out of the continent, and by building numerous plants with the help of cheap African labor. In addition, China is constructing roads and railways, which traverse the entire continent, as well as ports. This is why Africa is becoming not only an end market for various goods and a supplier of resources but also a convenient transit location on route to North and South America.
A key aim of PRC’s official policy, reiterated by its leadership, is for China to consolidate its economic influence in Africa. There have been trade and political ties between China and African countries since the middle of the 20th century. However, at that time the PRC had to compete with the USSR, Europe and the United States. However, Europe’s influence in Africa has weaken as decolonization continued, while the USSR collapsed in 1991, and its successor, the Russian Federation, did not really concern itself with Africa because of its own economic woes. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the US became less involved on the continent, and instead focused its efforts in the Middle East. Vast opportunities opened up for China at that time, and the nation began to foster economic cooperation with all the African countries.
In 2000, Beijing hosted the first conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which was attended by PRC’s President at the time, Jiang Zemin, and representatives of more than 40 other nations and 17 global organizations, such as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Since then, FOCAC has staged seven high-profile meetings, including three large-scale summits. The forum has become an important platform used to discuss future plans and to chart the course of cooperation between China and Africa.
From 2000 to 2018, trade turnover between the PRC and African nations rose from $10 billion to more than $200 billion.
In 2013, China launched its global infrastructure initiative, One Belt, One Road (OBOR), aimed at integrating transport and economic systems of practically the entire world in order to create a single trade and economic space. Eurasia and Africa are to become the framework for OBOR’s global expansion, and leaders of African nations were happy to agree with this proposal. Since then, China has been actively building roads, ports and other transport infrastructure in Africa, which are necessary for OBOR to function.
In December 2015, the second FOCAC Summit took place in the capital of South Africa, Johannesburg, where the Action Plan (2016-2018) was adopted. PRC’s President, Xí Jìnpíng, who participated in the meeting, stated that, in accordance with this plan, China would invest $60 billion in economies of African countries, and a substantial portion of these funds would be spent on various infrastructure projects.
At the beginning of September 2018, the third FOCAC Summit was held in Beijing and was jointly chaired by Xí Jìnpíng and the President of South Africa, Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa. The Action Plan (2019-2021) was adopted. Its aim is to consolidate and build on success stories, envisioned in the 2016-2018 Action Plan. In addition, the Beijing Declaration was passed. It reflects China’s and Africa’s willingness to continue strengthening their mutual relations and to build a community with a common future. It has been reported that representatives from African countries, who participated in the Summit, expressed their satisfaction with the event and yet again voiced their support for the OBOR initiative. And as expected, one of its key outcomes was Xí Jìnpíng’s promise to invest another $60 billion in the economy of African nations.
Western countries are observing, with weariness and envy, how quickly their former colonies, which were under their dominion until the middle of the 20th century, are moving into their rival’s (the PRC) sphere of influence. And this is happening via non-violent means, as China has selected economics as its weapon of choice instead of its military. Enormous investments and trade tie economies of developing countries to a foreign donor more securely than military occupation.
Hence, once the United States realized what economic and geopolitical benefits they have lost in recent decades to China in Africa, the US began showing signs of anxiety.
In December 2018, the National Security Advisor to the US President, John Bolton, said that China was engaged in predatory policies in Africa, and that it impeded development of African nations and threatened their financial independence. In the American leadership’s view, by lending huge sums of money, China compels African nations to accrue debt that they may not be able to repay for many decades to come. And because of these loans, the PRC would then gain control over these countries’ economies and resources. John Bolton also stated that Chinese activities on the African continent hindered US investments in Africa’s economy, and obstructed American military operations. Overall, in John Bolton’s opinion, all of these latest developments threaten the US national security interests. It has been reported that John Bolton’s speech marked the start of White House’s new policy towards Africa, aimed at strengthening the US standing on the continent and rivaling China.
The PRC responded to the controversial statement from the United States the same month. Hua Chunying, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the global community needed to listen to African voices more and respect their wishes, as African communities were capable of deciding, by themselves, who to cooperate with, and that cooperation with China had already yielded tangible benefits.
Still, China understands that if its rivalry against the United States intensifies, it will be compelled to take additional measures in order to maintain and grow its influence in Africa. As far as financial investments in economies of African nations are concerned, China and the United States can compete on equal terms. However, the USA is way ahead of the game, compared to China, when it comes to military standing. Thirty four US military bases and more than 7,000 American military personnel are already stationed in Africa, and they conduct anti-terrorism operations on a regular basis there. This is quite an important aspect, which ensures that the United States maintains its influence on the continent.
Africa is a fairly unstable region, where wars break out often and coups are common place. And China will only be able to truly establish its foothold there by increasing its military presence in the region, and not by simply pouring money into the African economy. The PRC has already started working on this, and in August 2017, it opened its first foreign military base in the African nation of Djibouti. The country is on the coast of the Gulf of Aden, and China’s naval military base there is well-located in order to protect a section of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (the main sea corridor of OBOR), notorious for issues with piracy. Chinese military personnel can also stage operations from this base inside the continent, which will ensure safety of Chinese citizens working there and protect PRC’s investments. It appears as if China intends to expands its military presence in Africa. This is evidenced in the statement made by PRC’s Deputy Permanent Representative Ambassador to the UN, Wu Haitao, at the UN Security Council meeting in January 2019.
Wu Haitao appealed to the global community to join forces and ensure security in the Sahel region in West Africa. According to the Ambassador, members of transnational crime organizations, terrorist units and other unlawful armed units are active in this area. The Chinese diplomat asked for financial assistance to be provided to the five Sahel countries (Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger) for creating a joint military force. He also added that China, as always, was prepared to offer African nations assistance in their struggle for peace and prosperity. Although Chinese military participation in protecting the Sahel and West Africa was not mentioned, the fact that China chose to focus on security issues in this region is noteworthy in itself. After talking about the problem and compelling the international community to acknowledge it, China can then propose a solution to resolve this issue, which involves establishing its own new military bases in dangerous zones.
It is worth mentioning that the Sahel region is a narrow strip of land, which traverses the entire African continent from East to West, and separates the Sahara desert from the rest of Africa. In theory, establishing bases in the Sahel and on Africa’s west coast, coupled with the one in Djibouti, would create a chain of military bases that penetrate all parts of North Africa and would allow the PRC to control a substantial portion of the continent. This would certainly make China the most influential country in Africa. In turn, the African continent, with its vast natural and human resources, and connections to the longest and widest transport network, the OBOR, could transform China into the most influential economy in the world.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.