The Discourse On Sino-African Relations

Despite the countless articles that have been written and the numerous studies that have been conducted on the subject, Sino-African relations are rarely mentioned in the general public dialogue. We can no longer ignore China’s growing geo-political influence, especially now, when President Xi Jinping is working to strengthen its position on the international stage and particularly on the African continent. As China continues to expand its economy, it is simultaneously becoming more authoritative internally as well.

It is no secret that Chinese presence in Africa has been increasingly growing over the years, and the future implications of this expansion are still up for debate. What is startling, however, is the lack of discourse — especially among the general public and in academic spaces — about this steady, ongoing phenomenon. Numerous published accounts by scholars on international politics and on Sino-African relations have expressed their views online and sporadic discourses have taken place on college campuses; nevertheless, frequent and critical conversations that such an event warrants are not trickling down to the general public and transpiring as often as they ought to.

The lack of ubiquitous discourse could be attributed to the the puzzling nature of the relationship between African countries and China. Most of the rhetoric that we hear comes from Sino-optimist African and Chinese leaders who essentially claim that the partnership is equally beneficial for both parties. Jacob Zuma, the former president of South Africa, stated in 2012, “We [Africans] are particularly pleased that in our relationship with China we are equals and that agreements entered into are for mutual gain.” President Paul Kagame of Rwanda delivered a similar message during the opening of the Summit of the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), “Africa is not a zero-sum game. Our growing ties with China do not come at anyone’s expense. Indeed, the gains are enjoyed by everyone who does business on our continent.” Similarly, the rhetoric from Chinese leaders regarding the partnership has been unsurprisingly optimistic. Chinese premier Li Keqiang asserted in 2014, “China will forever be a reliable friend and true partner of the African people … China will not pursue a colonialist path or allow colonialism to reappear in Africa.” President Xi Jinping of China pronounced a similar statement at APEC CEO Summit, “Let me make this clear: the Belt and Road Initiative is an open platform for cooperation, it is guided by the principle of consultation and collaboration for shared benefits. It’s not designed to serve any hidden geopolitical agenda.” Sino-optimist statements such as these perhaps compel us to believe that the partnership is premised on a mutual understanding of reciprocal benefits for each partner without any latent geo-political agenda. It is precisely this public perception of Sino-African relations that enables us largely to ignore the subject.

China’s involvement with African countries goes decades back, but its recent heightened interest in the continent has rendered Africa as China’s leading ally in the global market. Many factors contribute to China’s interest in the continent, and most stem from China’s recognition of  its emerging market economies. China sees nations with emerging market economies as potential prospects for attaining high returns in the near future, since they have a higher chance of faster economic growth. China also senses no need to be entangled with the internal political turmoil of the countries it is doing business with; it often maintains a policy of non-interference, keeping relationships strictly on a business-to-business basis and making it a favorable economic ally for many of its partners. This decision on the part of Chinese government has been a chief issue for the US — a top critic of Chinese geopolitical influence — who has accused China of disregarding human rights violations and failing to spread democracy while benefiting economically from its partnerships.

China’s objectives from its deep-rooted involvement in Africa include the extraction of resources in order to attain raw materials such as fuel and coal, the expansion of its geopolitical influence through economic partnerships, and the augmentation of its already massive economy by its investments in the emerging market economies. Its goals on the continent are part of its Belt and Road Initiative — an expansive signature project in which China spent approximately 1 trillion dollars in over 60 countries to essentially, and ultimately, remodel current global trade, strengthen its economic ties, and assert its political influence. In exchange, China is outsourcing its manufacturing to African countries and hiring mainly African workers for its projects. Nearly 75% of all workers are local. Hearkening back to an aforementioned statement on Sino-optimism rhetoric, leaders have inadequately described the breadth of Sino-African relations because much of China’s imports of commodities and its exports of mainly manufactured goods are unsettlingly, and yet, unsurprisingly reminiscent of European colonialism.

Chinese investment in African countries is starting to become a topic of contentious discourse in the US, most notably in the deliberations involving US-China trade negotiations. John Bolton, national security advisor to President Trump, stated at the Heritage Foundation this past December that the Chinese “are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States” adding, “China uses bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.” Bolton mentions a few African countries who are in serious debt to China, such as Zambia and Djibouti, and brazenly asserts that they’re on the brink of becoming “economic vassals for China.” By painting China as a predatory and colonizing force in Africa, Bolton has mobilized both the president and party members to renew their strategies for restoring U.S relations with African countries. President Trump introduced a new initiative — “Prosper Africa” — which Bolton claims will provide alternatives to the the state-owned Chinese developments and expand American investment on the continent. According to the fact sheet, the Trump administration expresses a commitment to “promoting prosperity” “strengthening security” and “striving for stability” for African nations.

In spite of the administration's ostensible commitment to establishing such partnerships with the continent, it doesn’t require much to see that the US’s abrupt and energized interest in the continent is potentially more about countering China’s influence rather than a bona fide commitment at fostering a mutual relationship with African nations. And it’s this Sino-pessimism in the West that continues to fuel Sino-optimism in Africa. The US is entertaining the idea of expanding its presence in Africa presumably in the traditional neo-liberal order for reasons of reasserting its global hegemony — not for looking out for the best interests of African nations. And the Trump administration’s hostile influence war with China is menacing and will bring about some — if not many — implications for Africa, for it is tacitly being cast as a battleground for the two world powers who seem to only be concerned with self-aggrandizement.  

Whether China is carrying out a soft power neo-colonialist agenda in Africa or establishing bona fide trade relations with African countries, we should all, nonetheless, be attentive and be part of the conversation of what it is currently taking place. Ethical discourse should be pointed towards superintending China’s business ventures on the continent and holding African leaders and the African Union accountable for protecting land and resources, maintaining a mutually beneficial and balanced relationship, and refusing to accept a latent neocolonial model. Discourse should include analysis of sino-optimism in Africa and sino-pessimism in the West, and of how we can have an an accurate conception of the reality of the partnership without these two prevailing influences.   

Feven Negussie