he recent cancellation and revisiting of Chinese contracts by a few African countries – Ghana, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Kenya – are being interpreted as a setback to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is being read by international observers as a first step that could help Africa’s 54 countries break free from their dependence on China through the latter’s investments, loans and trade worth over $ 200 billion per annum. China-baiters are also painting an alarming picture for Africa getting into a debt trap craftily laid by China. It is worth noting that China is now Africa’s biggest trade partner with over 10,000 Chinese-owned firms currently operating in the entire African continent. The value of Chinese business in Africa since 2005 amounts to over $2 trillion. Asia has slipped below Africa as China’s largest market for overseas construction contracts. Infrastructure development projects – be it construction of railway-road networks, airports and hospitals, China’s presence in Africa has become almost ubiquitous. So much so that to keep the momentum going, China recently announced a $1billion Belt and Road Africa infrastructure development fund. As such Africa’s economic ties with China, especially after the US strategy of thwarting the latter’s ambition to monopolise over South China Sea and control the Asia-Pacific region, are expected to deepen.
What has triggered speculation about growing disillusionment in Africa about China’s trade and investment in the continent is Ghana’s cancellation of the contract of the Beijing Everyway Traffic & Lighting Tech company, which was to develop an intelligent traffic management system for the country. The President of the DRC Felix Tshisekedi has also called for a review of mining contracts previously signed with China. The DRC President expressed his unhappiness over China’s ‘exploitative’ tendency and said those with whom his country had signed contracts are getting richer while the people of his own country ‘remain poor.’ The contract signed with Chinese state-backed firms Sinohydro Corp and China Railway Group was for building roads, hospitals and bridges in exchange for a 68 per cent stake in the country’s Sicomines venture.
The Ghana government cancelled their project because they found Everyway Traffic & Lighting Tech’s work not up to standard. Last year, a Kenyan High Court ordered the cancellation of a $ 3.2 billion contract between Kenya and China for the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway. The court termed the whole project ‘illegal.’
Africa is fast getting into a Chinese debt trap and the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the pace. According to one estimate, China signed 1,141 loan commitments worth $ 153 billion with various African governments and their state-owned enterprises during 2000 to 2019. The harsh terms and conditions attached by the US and European investors have forced African countries to welcome Chinese investments whose stated policy is not to ‘interfere with the internal matters’ of the recipient countries. This is only a euphemism for overlooking human rights violation and trampling of democratic principles by the Chinese operatives. The US and European lenders, on the other hand, insist on these aspects. Thus, China easily filled the vacuum created by the latter and is using its financial and technical power to exploit the continent’s natural resources. Over a third of China’s oil and 20 per cent of its cotton come from Africa. The continent has roughly half of the world’s stock of manganese needed for steel production. Africa also has significant amounts of coltan needed for electronic goods and half the world’s supply of rare earth elements (REE) used for over 200 high-tech consumer products including cellular telephones, computer hard drives, monitors and defence applications.
China doesn’t depend much on Africa for the success of its BRI which is needed for penetrating European markets through the maritime route. For these Chinese investments for BRI are heavily concentrated in Egypt and the Horn of Africa along the route to the Suez Canal.
China’s main interest in pumping in billions of dollars in Africa is to get the 54 African countries on its side to exert pressure on the UN to fulfil its global ambitions. Each of these countries has a vote in the UN and China has been assiduously cultivating them since 1990. These votes have helped China put its nationals as heads of four UN agencies – the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). It is the only country, ever, to have held so many directorates at once. China has also been able to greatly influence the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the world has seen how it has been leveraging its position during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep the origin of the virus in Wuhan a riddle yet to be solved.
China’s involvement in Africa has struck roots too deep to be cut off through scrapping of a few contracts. Since the US and the European
Union preferred to cede much ground to China in the Dark Continent for the past few decades, it is now very difficult for global forces to start a new narrative in Africa.