H I G H L I G H T S
• CHINA’S AFRICA STRATEGY
CHINA’S AFRICA STRATEGY
Based on the writings of Chinese stategists, Nadege Rolland of the Washington-based National Bureau of Asian Research concludes in the report “A New Great Game? Situating Africa in China’s Strategic Thinking” that Beijing has an emerging, but seemingly informal, strategy regarding Africa. China “aims at making the continent fit into a new subsystem comprising much of the ‘global South’ that China aspires to dominate.” By persuading African governments to endorse Chinese institutions and ideology and even adopt aspects of China’s polity and economy, Beijing seeks to “outflank” US-led attempts to isolate China internationally. “Contrary to Beijing’s protestations, and despite the skepticism of many Western observers, China is in fact preparing to export its model to Africa,” she writes.
The strategy includes interest in the obvious interests in the continent’s natural resources, one reason China has become Africa’s largest creditor and the largest financier of African infrastructure. China constructs one in three of all infrastructure projects in Africa and over 10,000 Chinese firms operate there. While China’s Africanists make no mention of it, says Rolland, Beijing’s military strategists are likely looking at opportunities along the west and east African coasts.
Rolland traces the present African strategy to Chinese Academy of Social Sciences conferences on the future of Chinese foreign policy held in 2013. These in turn led the National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Sciences awarding annual grants for research projects furthering the themes decided by these conferences. In 2015 nearly a dozen grants were about regarding Africa. The National Planning Office reports to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Leading Group for Propaganda and Ideological Work.
The projects sought to answer the question: what kind of Africa strategy does China need, and how should it be implemented? The research led to 13 policy-relevant reports, 10 of which were formally endorsed by national and provincial state and party organs; 32 academic papers; a series of academic conferences and think tank workshops held in both China and Africa; and over 20 additional reports published internationally.
The project head, Zhang Hongming, divided China’s interests in Africa into three main categories: core (hexin), important (zhongyao), and general (yiban). The core issue is the continuing support for Taiwan among some African states. In recent years, said one Chinese scholar, Africa has become the “main battlefield for diplomatic competition between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.” The important Africa issues include obvious economic issues like expanding exports and developing mineral resources. But they also include winning African support against attacks on China’s human rights record. General issues are a grab bag of almost everything else.
The economic writings noted that as China loses its advantages as a low-cost manufacturer a transfer of industries to Africa, which needs labour-intensive industries, would be a win-win for both. “The only place in the world that can undertake such a large-scale transfer of labour-intensive industries [from China] is Africa,” says one paper. This, argues scholar Xue Li, would also allow Chinese firms to bypass trade barriers imposed by the West. Other papers noted that in areas like overseas aid, development assistance, peacekeeping and so on Africa was the perfect place for China to show itself to be a responsible global player.
Further studies led to a final paper submitted to Beijing in 2016. In this, Zhang argued any Africa strategy should be integrated within the “great game of China’s diplomacy, security and development strategy. Two concepts appear regularly: strategic fulcrum and exterior lines. The first harks back to when outreach to Africa under Mao Zedong helped China avoid international isolation during the Cold War. The second to a military and diplomatic strategy to counter a stronger adversary by avoiding direct confrontation and instead reaching out through “exterior lines,” that is parts of the world beyond East Asia such as Africa. Zhang believes Africa is “the weak link in the US global strategy layout.” Rolland says Chinese strategists see their struggle with the US in Africa as largely “political and discursive” with Africa providing endorsements of Chinese institutional and political practices, providing Beijing diplomatic support in international bodies.
A detailed 2017 report by the CASS scholar He Wenping looked at how “China’s experience” can be transferred to African countries. African countries generally admire China’s economic achievements, but take different views about China’s authoritarianism. It noted that leaders who studied in the West, such as Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, “mostly agree with the promotion of Western values such as ‘democracy,’ ‘freedom,’ and ‘human rights.’” Those that espouse “traditional African values” like Ethiopia and Zimbabwe are more supportive of Beijing’s political culture. Two Chinese innovations, the special economic zones and industrial parks that merge infrastructure and skills development, and its political training and party building methods are cited as worthy of export to Africa. But Chinese analysts admit they face challenges in Africans’ emphasis on “independent development” and preference for “pragmatic” diplomacy playing one great power against another. Another is the strong African support for multiparty democracy. Chinese strategists clearly envisage Africa as a testing ground and the “first step leading to a greater community of common destiny” that will link “the China dream with the African dream, the Arab dream, and even the world dream.”
Africa Quad. China has proposed an “Africa Quad” under which Germany and France work with China to help develop Africa. Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed this to leaders of the two European governments in a virtual summit. Xi said the three countries could cooperate with Africa in a “four-party” framework to help fight pandemic and address the continent’s great “development potential.” Xinhua news agency referred to the idea, but the French and German press statements made no mention of the proposal.
Xi used the opportunity to obliquely criticize the US’s attempts to unite countries against China when the world needed “mutual respect” and “close collaboration.” China and Europe should “view each other’s differences in a correct way, rationally handle divergences, and ensure ties between the two sides move forward,” said Xi. He then cited Africa as a place where all involved could work together. He urged Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron to join the Partnership for Africa’s Development, a framework Beijing put together with African governments in May. Paris said it was ready to strengthen coordination with China in areas like finance and education. The two European governments said they welcomed China’s statements about debt relief for African nations.
Huawei Wins Contracts. The Reconnecting Asia Project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies looked at Chinese telecom firm Huawei’s success in signing deals with foreign governments or state-owned firms for cloud infrastructure and e-government services. It was able to identify 70 deals in 41 countries and noted 36% were in Africa, 20% in Asia, 17% each in the Americas and Europe, and 10% in West Asia. The study then looked into the reasons for Huawei’s success given its inferior technology and controversial links with the Chinese state. One, in 60% of the cases packaged hard infrastructure with the e-services and arranged for finance as well. This was particularly attractive to developing countries where the ancillary hardware to run cloud operations is lacking. Two, Huawei offered an array of cloud equipment ranging from container-sized modular data centres to server stacks the size of multi-storeyed buildings. It also offered a smorgasbord of e-government services ranging from document digitisation to national identification systems. A sizeable number of Huawei deals, about 16%, run into security or operational problems later on but the firm continues to expand. Half of the deals identified were done in 2018 or after.
Training programmes. Chinese training programmes for foreign visitors have been cited as an example of Beijing trying to promote its one-party system to other countries. Maria Repnikova, a scholar who has focussed on such programmes for Africans, says Beijing’s messaging is more nuanced. The trainers, in fact, stress the importance of self-reliance and finding nation-specific paths. Instead, the programmes communicate the legitimacy of the Chinese political system and advertise the country’s successful economic development. Much of the material highlights village-level elections and meritocracy within the party. African participants tend to be surprised as this seems to run counter to the hard authoritarianism depicted in mainstream media.
China has taken groups of African ambassadors to Xinjiang to counter claims of cultural genocide, mass internment and forced labour of Uighur minority members. One recent group included the African Union representative to China, Rahamtalla Mohamed Osman, ambassadors from Guinea-Bissau, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Speaking in Beijing afterwards, they praised the economic development they had seen in Xinjiang. Combining this with security measures were a model for countering extremism. Osman said, “What had happened in Xinjiang is a very successful way of combating extremism.” The Guinea-Bissau ambassador said he had seen no evidence of forced labour camps and criticized Western media for propagating such claims.
Security firms. Chinese security firms employ several thousand contractors in 50 African countries and have become part and parcel of Chinese investments across the continent. Twenty of the 5,000 security firms in China have licences to operate overseas. These firms are legally 51% owned by the Chinese state, effectively making them agencies of Beijing and not private companies. Overseas Security Guardians and China Security Technology Group employ 62,000 contractors around the world. Beijing DeWe Security Service and Huaxin Zhong An Security Group are known to employ 35,000 contractors.
Some of the more significant security operations in Africa include DeWe’s 2000 contractors in Kenya to protect the $ 3.6 billion standard gauge railway project. DeWe also protects the $ 4 billion natural gas project of Poly-GCL Petroleum Group Holdings in Ethiopia. China Overseas Security Group, a collection of five firms, protects Belt and Road Initiative projects in Somalia. China Security and Technology Group secures transportation routes, including in the Gulf of Guinea, Gulf of Aden and the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport corridor. Shandong Haiwei Security Group secures a number of Chinese mines in southern Africa. The security firms often work closely with local governments, but ultimately serve the interests of the Chinese government. In Sudan and South Sudan, Chinese contractors work with local militia and government forces. In 2012, contractors reportedly from the VSS Security Group helped the Sudanese military rescue 29 kidnapped Chinese oil workers. In 2016, DeWe hired South Sudanese militia to help evacuate over 300 Chinese oil workers after the civil war there turned violent again.
Chinese security firms began arriving in Africa in 2008, when Chinese warships began anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. As Chinese firms have spread across the continent, many of them investing in countries with law and order issues, the security firms have proliferated. Chinese state-owned firms spend about $ 10 billion a year on security, much of it in Africa. The firms use veterans of the People’s Liberation Army and other security forces. Questions have been raised as to whether their presence is a violation of the African Union’s Convention for the Elimination of Mercenaries.
Infrastructure funding. Nigeria is looking for $ 1 billion in funding to finish a gas pipeline after the original Chinese backers stopped disbursements, seemingly for fear of overexposure to Nigerian infrastructure. The state-owned NNPC said it was still negotiating with Bank of China and Sinosure to cover $ 1.8 billion of the cost of the $ 2.5 billion 614 km-long Ajaokuta-Kaduna-Kano pipeline, designed to tap the gas resources in the country’s north. Reuters reports the sudden loan slowdown is “the latest sign of falling Chinese financial support for infrastructure projects across Africa.” NNPC has begun construction but is now looking for alternative funding. “They are looking at Nigeria as one loan, and right now, they feel they are too exposed,” one source said of the Chinese funders. Chinese bank lending to African infrastructure projects has fallen across the continent, from $11 billion in 2017 to $3.3 billion in 2020, a Baker McKenzie report said in April.
Kenya is set to pay a portion of the Chinese debt it took on board to build the standard gauge railway to Mombasa. By month’s end, Kenya will pay $ 325.6 million to China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China, $ 142.2 million of this being interest. The payment had originally been postponed under the G-20 debt suspension initiative that ran from January to June in response to the Covid pandemic. Kenya has pushed for the debt holiday to be extended to December. Nairobi has over $ 9.5 billion in foreign exchange, but this is partly because of recent loans from the IMF and World Bank. A larger issue is whether the railway is commercially viable.
Green concerns. Uganda and Tanzania approved the construction of a partially Chinese-funded cross-border oil pipeline in the teeth of considerable environmental opposition. China National Offshore Oil Corporations and the French oil major, Total, are major investors in the pipeline and the oilfield it connects to. The 1445 km pipeline will carry heated crude oil from Hoima, Uganda, to the Tanzanian port of Tanga. Green activist groups like BankTrack, the Africa Institute for Energy Governance and 350Africa have said the entire project poses “environmental and social risks to protected wildlife areas, water sources and communities” and will continue their opposition.
Chinese-supported infrastructure projects have repeatedly run into environmental problems in Africa. The Ghana-Sinohydro bauxite mining deal was done without any assessment of its impact on water and forest resources, leading to large-scale protests by locals. A Kenyan court stopped the construction of a $ 2 billion coal-fired power plant after green groups said it would endanger a world heritage site, forcing out the Industrial Commercial Bank of China which was to provide half the funding.
Elizabeth Losos, a senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute, says, “The real tragedy is that in many of these cases early consultation and planning could have avoided these disasters.” Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, said “There is no doubt that Chinese commercial actors … have tried to evade environmental requirements.” Christoph Nedopil Wang, of the Green Belt and Road Initiative Centre, said some Chinese financial institutions were trying to improve their environmental risk management beyond the requirements of host countries. Also, Chinese regulators were starting to apply “green” concepts such as the traffic light system to project evaluation.
But the economic benefits often prove to be too great for the African governments concerned. Sierra Leone’s parliament overwhelmingly voted in favour of an industrial fishing harbour at Black Johnson beach to be funded by $55 million grant from China despite protests by environmental groups. Fisheries minister Emma Kowa-Jalloh said the new port was critical given 10-12% of Sierra Leone’s GDP comes from fishing.
Vaccine diplomacy. China has sent Covid-19 vaccines, both sales and donations, to 35 African countries to date. Since May, these vaccine shipments have accelerated but Africa continues to lag behind other regions when it comes to China’s vaccine diplomacy. However, Africa has received more donated vaccines than other regions, presumably reflecting the financial constraints of many governments.
China has delivered 27 million vaccines doses to Africa out of 55 million that it has pledged to provide. Of these, about six million have been donations. Eighty percent have been distributed to just four African countries: Morocco, (16.5 million doses), Zimbabwe (4.4 million), Egypt (4.1 million) and Algeria (1.8 million). But Beijing’s priorities seem evident from the numbers it has sent to other parts of the world. The Asia-Pacific has received the largest share, followed by Latin America and West Asia. Africa has received the lowest number. But African countries also benefit from the Covax initiative in which vaccines from many manufacturers are pooled and to which China also donates.
Africa has had its fair share of vaccine scepticism, but in a few countries like Zimbabwe it has merged with popular suspicions regarding the close relationship between Beijing and the ruling authoritarian regime. Surveys in Zimbabwe show vaccine hesitancy is as high as 75%.