In recent years, China has emerged as a formidable global influencer. Although lacking the military capabilities of the US, it is rapidly expanding its economic and political ties worldwide. The West is weary of this influence, as it sees its power declining, especially in Africa. The Chinese have taken on a much more assertive approach to global affairs, focusing on soft power to achieve their goals.
Soft power refers to the use of political, economic, cultural, and diplomatic elements to generate influence and create strategic alliances. Looking at the African continent, it is easy to see why China would be interested in investing in the region. It is also evident why they chose soft power to achieve it. Abundant in resources but plagued by conflict, Africa bears the legacy of Western colonialism, and such a legacy isn’t easily forgotten. Throughout history, Africa’s abundance of natural resources has caused many disputes and has resulted in them being exploited by foreign powers, leaving many African states vulnerable. China has presented itself as a benefactor, rushing to aid developing states. This is part of a foreign policy that wants China as the center of regional cooperation that will extend its influence worldwide.
Chinese involvement in Africa can be traced to the Cold War. During that time, the Chinese government supported many African liberation movements, setting the foundations for future partnerships. The votes of African countries were also instrumental in China winning its seat in the UN General Assembly and the Security Council. This goes to show that Sino-African relations are not a new phenomenon, albeit one that has gained more traction in recent years through strategic partnerships and increasing trade.
Recently, as of 2010, China has been continually increasing its ties with many African states like Angola, Nigeria, South Africa, and Ethiopia. It is currently the continent’s biggest trading partner, having surpassed the US in 2009. The Belt and Road Initiative introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, while not limited to Africa further strengthened the political and economic ties between them. While it started as a project targeting East Africa, it took a new turn when many other African states sought opportunities through it.
The BRI has contributed to the development of railways, ports, and telecommunication channels in countries like Ethiopia, Djibouti, Algeria, Kenya, and Nigeria. China has presented itself as a willing benefactor, providing the capital necessary for developments in infrastructure, energy, transportation, and many other basic sectors. It is also pushing the narrative of “South-South cooperation” to further enhance this role. This cooperation refers to a mutual partnership between the countries of the Global South for them to aid each other in reaching their sustainable growth goals. Under the umbrella of the SSC, the Chinese have funded various projects throughout the continent in the form of loans, promising mutually beneficial cooperation without political ties. This stance contradicts that of many Western states, which have tried to interfere in the inner-state policies of the countries they chose to loan to. It also gives another major advantage to the Chinese, by differentiating them from the long history of colonialism that plagued the African continent.
While China’s actions are in no way altruistic, they have still brought on a lot of positive improvements in infrastructure, education, transport, and trade. However, like all things, Chinese aid comes at a cost. Many Western analysts are worried about the huge debt accumulated from Chinese loans as well as the exposure of African states to Chinese lending which could lead to what is called “debt-trap” diplomacy. This form of negotiating implies that the Chinese are intentionally providing unmanageable loans to African countries to leverage them into political cooperation. While some countries like Kenya have badly managed their debt, others have created a feasible plan with China which has allowed growth and development. Despite that, it is important to note that after 2016, China’s loaning to Africa has significantly decreased, compared to previous years.
Despite that, the increasingly high debts accumulated by some African states are starting to become an evident problem, both for China and the rest of the world. Many of the agreements made were bilateral and more often than not opaque. In past cases, China has been very assertive in demanding full repayment, an attitude that has hurt its portrayal as a champion of developing countries.
At this point, it would be as ignorant to think that Chinese intentions are purely innocent, as it would be to believe that the African states are not aware of the consequences of these partnerships. Throughout the years, China has increased its military and political presence in many African countries like Djibouti, where it has built its first overseas military base and has been involved in various forms of military cooperation, like joint military exercises with countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, South Africa, and Nigeria. They have also made very clear their intentions to expand their influence and become a global power. They are an emerging power, in competition with the US, and securing influence in Africa would be a logical step in their bid to become a global power.
This bid for influence has become increasingly political, especially with the increasing number of African countries that are indebted to the Chinese. However, if China wishes to continue the narrative of South-South cooperation, as well as distance itself from accusations of neo-colonialism it will have to find a way of collaborating with the West in managing these debts through global channels like the G20 and the UN.
Ultimately, while the Sino-African partnerships are not inherently dangerous for each collaborator, they do threaten the current status- quo. China’s more aggressive foreign policy is cause for concern for the West. The strong ties created through projects like the BRI, or Chinese aid and investments in African states, the increasing willingness of African countries to collaborate with China, and the stigma of Western involvement in the area all point towards a shift in global and regional influence. China is taking center stage in the African continent, and we can’t blame them. After all, as the hegemonic stability theory suggests, when one player becomes increasingly powerful, it is only a matter of time before someone wants to undermine that power. There is always a leading force in international influence, and one can’t really blame the Chinese for throwing their hat in the ring.
Author: Έλλη Ματθαιάδη
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