Geopolitics of China: Sino-African Relationship

Moojin Park

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In 2015, China promised to loan Africa sixty billion dollars by the end of 2018. With December of 2018 coming to a close, we have seen a rise of infrastructure like dams, railroads, sports facilities, etc across African countries. There now exists a train running across Kenya, provided and funded by China, with speed higher than United States’ fastest train Excel Express (America’s fastest train, Acela Express, has average speed of 68 mph. Kenya’s fastest train, Madaraka Express, has average speed of 74.5 mph.). In addition, China has given the money to Africa on little to no interest rate, and has asked for nothing immediately in return (Fifield, Anna.  China Pledges $60 Billion in Aid and Loans to Africa, ‘No Political Conditions Attached.’ Washington Post. 2018). This pattern isn’t anything new, either. China has been giving monetary aid to countries in Africa as early as 1970s, and the new deal they made in 2015 was just a continuation of their promise in 1970s with Africa. The question, naturally, becomes: why? What does China gain from this seemingly random act of kindness towards Africa? In this post, I will attempt to answer the question with a focus on the consequences of China’s ‘donation’ to Africa on both local and international level.

The contract between Africa and China is simple on paper: China, starting in 2015, promised to loan sixty billion dollars equivalent of money to Africa to help them fund  infrastructure building until the end of 2018. Little to no interest rate will be applied to each loan China gives to Africa, depending on the infrastructure the money will be spent to build, and when Africa is able to pay back their loan, they will not have to pay their loan back adjusted to inflation. On paper, China looks like it’s just giving money to Africa out of kindness. But when we read this contract, we must keep in mind that not all contractual exchange that happens between two parties is explicitly stated on paper. In other words, we must look for what we cannot see on the text that could have immense impact on how the contract will be played out in action, and that hidden detail is the lack of names of the countries in Africa. By broadly saying “we will give money to Africa,” China opens a ground for competition among African countries against each other to ‘win’ China’s money. This can be seen during United Nations meetings whenever a resolution involving China comes up to the table. If an African nation sides with China and votes on a resolution that favors China, it will find itself with a large sum of money from China in next couple of months. It was found that when an African country votes on a resolution in UN General Assembly that benefits China, they receive 86% more money than countries that didn’t on average. This 86% will translate to couple tens of more millions of dollars (A Despot’s Guide to Foreign Aid. The Economist. 2016).

With limited sixty billion dollars China is offering to the entire continent of Africa, and the fact that amount of money individual African countries will receive depends on whether or not they cast their ballots in favor of China, China has successfully made a system where they can buy their supporters in Africa. If an African country decides to side with China, they will be rewarded handsomely. On the other hand, if they refuse to side with China, the amount of money they will receive from China will be reduced, and the money that would have gone to them if they sided with China will go to another country in Africa. Siding with China has become a no-brainer for African states within United Nations General Assembly meetings because whether or not they side with China will decide on whether or not they will be faced with economic punishment of having their funding repressed, or economic reward of having their funding increased. Money passing under the dais of United Nations isn’t the only highlight of this Sino-African relationship, either. China’s promise of money has also incentivized African countries to open their borders for Chinese investors and companies to come in to use their raw material and population’s labor force. As China is transforming from industrializing to industrialized, they are looking to source their workforce and raw material from domestic to international. African countries provide China with their land, raw materials, and labor force to Chinese investors, and China offers them money in return. The problem with Chinese investors using Africa’s labor force is that Chinese companies subject African workers to working conditions that systematically violate  workers’ rights and treats African workers condescendingly (Chinese Investment in Africa: A Labour Perspective. African Labour Research Network. 2009). In other words, the relationship between China and Africa is closer to that of neo-colonialism than it is to a mere trade agreement between countries.

China’s geo-political power increases as African countries advance; the poverty-stricken Africa could one day become the biggest consumers of Chinese goods if China’s habit of pumping money into African countries’ government continue and Africa continues to let Chinese investors and companies take advantage of their raw materials and labor forces. For America, this means growing concern for the future of economic competition with China and losing its foothold in U.N General Assembly when facing against China backed by numerous African countries.  For Africa, the concern for the working condition of their labor force being sold to China lingers, but the sheer amount of money they receive from China discourages their government from doing anything about it.

Many critics, especially America, are calling this relationship a neo-colonization of Africa and that China is exploiting Africa. But we must also keep in mind that China is not the only one who’s engaging in this kind of relationship with developing countries: America has had dozens of maquiladoras on the border of Mexico and America to exploit cheap Mexican labor force. China may be doing this to gain something in return, but we cannot ignore the fact that Africa has become more advanced than ever before by receiving money from China. That’s not to say the Sino-African relationship does not have any exploitive elements to it. It surely does. What I am saying is that there are also elements of contract that benefit Africa as well, and if Chinese companies fix the working conditions they subject African workers under and stop treating them condescendingly, I personally would not have any problem considering erasing the label ‘neo-colonialism’ to their relationship. The motive of China is clear: it’s to invest in Africa in return for land, labor, and alliance in United Nations. But it happens that China’s control over which African country they will give money to forces Africa to submit to China. But is a bad motive itself enough to ignore the good outcome their relationship has produced and declare that China is exploiting Africa? I don’t know.