Africa: Made in China

Written by: McKenna Ross

China and Africa are two areas of the world that are becoming more linked every day. This is largely because of China’s Belt and Road Initiative which has dramatically increased economic ties between the two. Only now is the world beginning to see the long term effects of China’s spreading influence on the African continent. 

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an economic initiative at its core and its purpose is to create a massive network of infrastructure spanning Asia, Europe, and Africa. Not only does it connect the continents with roadways and railways, it also provides China with new markets for Chinese goods and increases foreign dependency on Chinese low-cost loans. 

China has been heavily involved in the development of infrastructure in African countries such as Kenya and Tanzania. In addition to the BRI, China’s other business on the continent has made China Africa’s largest trading partner. China now has a larger market for construction contracts in Africa than in Asia, and is Africa’s biggest infrastructure investor by far. 

This leads to Africa’s growing problem with Chinese debt. The BRI means countries can get low-cost Chinese loans to finance infrastructure-backed economic growth. With Africans unable to finance their own infrastructure projects, they are forced to turn to either western financial institutions or Chinese creditors, and given the relative ease for obtaining a Chinese loan, western firms are increasingly excluded from the African market. The International Monetary Fund is a western institution that spreads neoliberal policies in developing countries, but their loans historically came with strict conditions that were not appealing to Africans, which made China’s ‘no strings attached’ loans even more alluring.

China now owns a large chunk of African debt, which is only further exacerbated by the current trade deficit between Africa and China. The BRI means Africa has greater trade relations with China, but it has been much more beneficial for China, as Africa is importing more Chinese goods than they are exporting their own local goods.

China’s primary region of influence in Africa has been economics, but that might soon change as the country has recently taken steps to expand the Chinese naval base in Djibouti. This base was opened in 2017 and is China’s first overseas base, and only three years later they are expanding it by building a new pier. The base was originally built as a logistical facility that would assist in anti-piracy missions and other non-war military operations. But now Chinese officials have begun to call the Djibouti base China’s first ‘overseas strategic strongpoint,’ one that can protect China’s international security interests. With China’s growing investments in Africa, perhaps this is only the first of several Chinese bases.

One example of China’s growing influence on Africa is the issue of the recognition of Taiwan. Taiwan is recognized by only one African country, Eswatini. Because a country cannot have diplomatic relations with China while supporting an independent Taiwan, many African governments have forsaken a previously positive relationship with Taiwan in favor of China. Burkina Faso is only the latest of Taiwan’s previous African allies to abandon the island. China’s economic influence in Africa has made many strides in legitimizing Chinese interests and undermining Taiwan. This shows that China’s economic influence is hardly limited to the realm of business.  Taiwan highlights a problem the west may soon find themselves facing; will African countries align themselves with China? In the past, this question might not have meant much – Africa was still feeling the long term effects of colonization and the slave trade, but now has a growing workforce and economy. Though the continent was pushed into a recession by the COVID-19 pandemic, they are set to rebound in 2021 and continue to grow. Africa will have a larger influence on the world’s economy and on world politics, so can the west afford to leave China as the major influence on the African continent?