China has pledged $60bn to African development in the China-Africa Summit on 4 December. Since 2009, China has become Africa’s leading trading partner, with exports and imports of commodities, technology, oil, textile and cars. Optimists say the weighty business deals will bring common prosperity, but should the West worry about China’s growing influence in the continent?

First stop, Zimbabwe

Before the China-Africa Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Harare to discuss economic opportunities with Zimbabwean leader, Robert Mugabe. Under his rule, the country plunged into economic turmoil due to rampant corruption and mismanagement. According to The Economist, the country’s inflation reached 80 billion percent in 2008-09. Mugabe has been shunned by the West due to widespread human rights abuses and alleged election fraud, so the desperate leader turned to China for help.  Xi arrived to Zimbabwe with a 21-gun salute while Mugabe waited at the airport to receive his esteemed guest.   Some of the mega deals include:

  • Loaning $1.5 billion to upgrade the Hwange Power Station, Finance Minister Chinamasa also signed three other agreements on electricity upgrades
  • Construction of a new parliament building
  • Upgrading TelOne, a state-owned telecommunications company
Photo Credits: Robert Mugabe in the African Union Summit in Addis Abada, Ethiopia, 2008 by Tech Sgt Jeremy Lock – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credits: Robert Mugabe in the African Union Summit in Addis Abada, Ethiopia, 2008 by Tech Sgt Jeremy Lock – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The 2015 China-Africa Summit

After meeting Mugabe, Xi flew to South Africa for the second Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Johannesburg. FOCAC was established in 2000 as an initiative to strengthen Sino-Africa relations. Seventeen African states attended the meeting, these include: Algeria, Benin, Burundi, Chad, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Zambia.

President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, praised the China-Africa ties as a “win-win” situation.  According to China’s state media Xinhua Daily, Beijing will play an important role in Africa’s development:

  • Promoting political settlement of Africa’s hotspot issues
  • Increase cooperation with African nations on peace-keeping capability
  • Share its experience on reform, opening-up and economic boom with Africa

Xi says:

“China-Africa relations have today reached a stage of growth unmatched in history. Let’s join hands … and open a new era of China-Africa win-win cooperation and common development”

In the two-day summit, Beijing also pledged to:

  • Help boost the agriculture sector
  • Build infrastructure such as roads, railways and ports
  • Cancel some existing debt for least developed nations
  • Build up health care facilities
  • Cooperate with African nations to combat terrorism – this is in light of three Chinese nationals who died during the Mali siege

China – Africa relations

Africa is a resource rich region with many investment opportunities in development. In modern history, China and Africa’s economic and political relations ties began during Mao Zedong’s rule in China. In the 1990s, trade increased by 700%. After the first China-Africa Forum in 2000, more than 40 trade agreements were signed.  By the end of 2006, there were 800.

In 2014, Sino-Africa trade was worth $220 billion and Chinese investments in Africa totalled up to $32.4 million. The Look East Policy gained momentum in the continent due to China’s overlooking Africa’s domestic issues i.e. human rights abuses and corruption. According to The Economist almost 80% of China’s mineral imports are from Africa while Chinese machinery make up 29% of Africa’s imports.

China’s oil purchase comes from Sudan, Nigeria and Angola. According to Le Monde Diplomatique, China’s Eximbank loaned $2bn to Angola to rebuild their infrastructures after their devastating Civil War (1975-2002) and China would receive 10,000 barrels of oil per day.

But economics is not the only factor bringing the two sides closer. Beijing has been ramping up cultural and educational exchange, and tourism. There are around 1 million Chinese nationals working in Africa and over 27,000 African students studying in China in 2012. The China Daily reports some African nations like Kenya has been listed as the Approved Destination Status for Chinese tourists. Other popular destinations include South Africa, Seychelles and Mauritius.

Photo Credits: China in Africa by futureatlas.com - Licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr

Photo Credits: China in Africa by futureatlas.com – Licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr

Should the West worry?

In recent years, Beijing has been more assertive in territorial claims in the East China Sea (Diaoyu Islands) and South China Seas. Further, with its astounding economic growth, the country is able to strengthen its military powerbase and build-up relations with other countries through development projects and deals. While China insists they are rising peacefully, the West is still not convinced.

Some argue the Sino-Africa relationship has been beneficial because development projects create employment opportunities and growth rate. Africa also sees Chinese presence as a counterbalance to Western involvement in the region. However, there has been criticism from the West about Beijing’s intentions in Africa; they say China’s soft diplomacy is a way of masking their colonialist goals to control Africa’s economy. Due to China’s silence on human rights issues in Africa, opponents argue Chinese investments are only motivated by capitalism and mercantilism, while ignoring other much-needed social development such as democracy, basic human security and environmental regulations.

One can say China’s investments keep dictators in power. For many years, China has been selling arms and purchasing oil from Sudan (now North Sudan). Sudan was China’s third largest trading partner as of 2010, and Beijing also pledged $20bn credit to the troubled nation. The business deals gave Omar al-Bashir the funds he needs for the war in Darfur which left more than 300,000 dead.

Photo Credits: Darfur refugee camp in Chad 2005 by Mark Knobli – Licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credits: Darfur refugee camp in Chad 2005 by Mark Knobli – Licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

The West sees China is attempting to solidify its powerbase in developing nations. Beijing’s controversial diplomacy with nations like North Sudan, Angola, Zimbabwe and Central African Republic have prompted the West to condemn China is willing to support dictators as long as Chinese interests are protected.

However, some Western countries began its exploitation in the region since the colonial days. The West has been selective in its humanitarian intervention and seemingly targeting countries that are economically and geopolitically important to them. Such states include oil-rich nations like Libya and Somalia, while ignoring the extreme brutality in the Rwandan Genocide. Additionally, the US played a significant role in supporting military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (he renamed the country Zaire from 1965-1997). Even though Mobutu was one of Africa’s most brutal despots, the US continued to supply arms and built up its military on the grounds of countering communism. But, the DRC is one of Africa’s most resource-rich nations and this asset was the main reason for Washington’s involvement in the country. Further, the US profited from selling arms to nations (Angola, Burundi, Chad, DRC, Namibia, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda and Zimbabwe) who were involved in the Congo War.

From whatever way we see the Sino-African relationship, the continent is another battleground for power and influence between the West and the rising super.

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Hsin-Yi Lo

Hsin-Yi Lo

I am freelance journalist and writer, and a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Kent. I am originally from Melbourne, Australia.