Nowadays, it is impossible to imagine the global economic system, and the system of international relations as a whole, without one of its most actively, successfully developing countries: the People’s Republic of China. Therefore, paying attention to China’s activities in various regions around the world is of particular interest, and in the United States, realizing the real threat posed to its former hegemony by Beijing, this interest was replaced long ago by a jealous attitude toward China, and even declaring the PRC as its main geopolitical adversary.
Up until the middle of the 20th century, the African continent, which was the “playground” for former European colonial powers, and then the arena for the geopolitical standoff between the US and the USSR, has now to a great extent turned into the field of confrontation between Washington and its geopolitical rivals, and not only with Russia, but with China.
Currently, the African continent is one of the high-priority areas of focus for China’s foreign policy strategy. Occupying a leading position in the world, China is actively fostering multi-faceted relations with countries in Africa as part of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation, created in the year 2000; this takes place in the form of summits with participation on the part of various heads of state (once every three years alternating between China and African countries), with China recapping the results of this cooperation for the previous three years each time, and then announcing a new program for cooperating with Africa. The attention China is paying to Africa is not only because it is a rich source of natural resources (there are 90% of the world’s cobalt reserves there, 90% of its platinum, 50% of its gold, 98% of its chrome, 64% of its manganese, and more than 30% of its uranium), but due to the region’s growing weight in the world arena.
Unlike the US and European countries, China has never tried to interlink economic and political issues, and its attitude has always been demonstrative indifference toward whether this or that African leader respects human rights, or whether or not that leader’s regime meets Western democratic standards or not. That has been of no small importance in helping China financially and economically expand in Africa. For Beijing, it has always been the most important that cooperation be advantageous for China – and if not now, then in the future. And from this it is possible to give multiple examples of how Beijing cooperates with an entire array of movements and regimes in sub-Saharan Africa that were recently revolutionary. For example, with Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the rebel group National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) in Angola, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, for whom in the 1960s Chinese military instructors prepared guerillas and military specialists, as well as for a whole host of rebel groups and national armies in different African countries. At the same time, one should not forget that it was only after the TAZARA Railway (the Tanzam Railway, which connects the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, with a place in Zambia called New Kapiri Mposhi) was built that China became a player in the “Big Game 2.0”, the struggle for the “Black Continent”, and Tanzania became China’s “window” to Africa.
Nowadays, economic competition has replaced the ideological standoff in Africa. China is now competing on the “Black Continent” with the US, and quite successfully, and has turned into Africa’s key investor; and the actual types of Chinese investment attest to the fact that it has already spilled over beyond the bounds of any kind of centralized program. Over the past few decades, not only have major Chinese companies invested in Africa, but so have a slew of small- and mid-sized companies whose services are in high demand, since the market in the African continent holds a lot of potential. At present, Chinese investments in the economies in Africa countries are transferred in amounts of tens of billions of dollars, and each year their volume is only increasing, even though not even specialists working for the Chinese government are able to give a precise calculation for that scope of investment. To a great extent, this is explained by the fact that many business owners invest their funds while circumventing the government, and that includes via offshore zones.
China now has diplomatic relations with 53 African countries (only Swaziland has “preserved its loyalty” to Taiwan), and on top of that the Chinese government unswervingly continues to ratchet up its intensity in cultivating political contacts with its African colleagues at various levels. Naturally, important components in Chinese foreign policy in Africa are still trade, investment, scientific, and cultural exchanges and cooperation, and many assistance programs that include writing off various debts, technical and humanitarian cooperation programs, training personnel, and other aspects. What has taken on significance for China over the past few years, and for African countries themselves as well, is the Chinese One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, which has turned into the main area of focus for Chinese foreign policy over the past few years. Joining that Chinese project can only ensure an inflow of financial resources into Africa, but provide the opportunity to use these resources to achieve sustainable development objectives for the African region in the future. Currently, 37 African countries are bound by agreements under the OBOR, some of which have accrued substantial debts to the Celestial Empire – something that Washington and its Western allies have started to actively use to roll out an anti-Chinese campaign to discredit the activities Beijing is doing on the “Black Continent”, and especially under the OBOR initiative. In particular, given the fact that a number of African countries have accumulated significant debts to China, Washington is offering them various kinds of arrangements for “getting rid of debt payments”, and trying to convince them that “if you stop cooperating with the Chinese, then we will not demand that you pay your debts” and that OBOR is allegedly no longer popular. In addition, the US is proceeding from the fact that if 20-30 African countries refuse to cooperate with China then Chinese interest in this continent will disappear.
As a result of these “efforts” put forth by Washington, significant problems have already arisen in promoting the OBOR project in Kenya that stem from the Mombasa–Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway project, which has already run 3.2 billion dollars. This project is an important component in the African portion of the global OBOR project, and on 18 June, at the China-Africa summit, Xi Jinping underscored the importance of moving goods along the railway during the coronavirus epidemic. However, even on 23 June, the Court of Appeal of Kenya delivered a verdict that declared the contract to construct the railway as unlawful.
Besides financial and economic cooperation, Beijing over the past few years has deepened its military ties to the African continent. In 2017, the first Chinese overseas naval base was established in Djibouti. But that is where Camp Lemonnier, the largest US military base in Africa, is located, which has 5,000 service personnel. The main value Djibouti has is its strategic geographic location, and that is why not only are American and Chinese military personnel there, but French, Italian, Japanese, Spain, German, and Saudi Arabian personnel as well. With 10,000 service personnel, the Chinese military base is the largest out of all of those, and its appearance was justified by the need for China to protect the shipments of oil and other important natural resources from Africa and Middle Eastern countries. The US spoke out against building the Chinese base, but could not stop it, and now incidents regularly occur there between the two powers. The most recent happened in the middle of June.
Rumors have been circulating for a long time now about another Chinese base next to the port of Walvis Bay in Namibia, even though Beijing has not officially confirmed that. Namibia, along with Djibouti, holds key significance for China since there are uranium mines there that have Chinese workers, and the large-scale shipments of this radioactive resource from Namibia feed the Celestial Empire’s atomic energy industry as it tries to eliminate its coal industry. That is why Washington is very actively striving to impose restrictions on Beijing reinforcing its military foothold in Africa.
China’s activity in Africa is something that the US jealously follows. In December 2018, John Bolton, the former National Security Advisor for Trump, took particular note of the Chinese threat in Africa, and Washington started to actively develop the US strategy on how to confront China on the African continent. The “Chinese threat” is chiefly what led Washington to set up the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2008. Although the command was officially created to help combat terrorism in the Sahara-Sehel region, and in the Niger Delta, in actuality everyone realizes that its appearance largely stems from the competition with China, especially given the backdrop that the US has already lost the economic competition in Africa, with the scope of Chinese investment exceeding American investment by several orders of magnitude.
Valery Kulikov, expert political scientist, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.