China in Africa


THE six-nation Africa tour by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acquired new significance when on the eve of his departure he launched into an attack on Chinese investment in the continent, accusing it of corruption. Despite President Trump’s reported bad-mouthing of African states, Washington seems to be setting out to revive its engagement with African states.

During the Cold War, Washington fought a proxy battle with Moscow in Africa. The Americans armed and backed regimes that said they opposed Communists. The Soviets gave their support to regimes that claimed they were Communist or at least socialist. The interesting exception was the post-independence Tanzanian government of Julius Nyerere. His “oujama” village cooperative scheme eventually failed. But it was arguably the only real socialist experiment in Africa, without the use of Russian and Chinese style totalitarian control. Nyerere was also the first and still one of the few African leaders to step down peacefully from office.

China’s economic role in Africa is now considerable. Last year it committed to $36.1 billion to new investments. That figure was inflated by a $20 billion plan to help Egypt build a new administrative capital, a scheme which has yet to be agreed. But China has already demonstrated its engagement with the continent, building airports, dams, harbors, railways and telecommunications networks. The pattern is for Beijing to give generous loans to fund the projects, in return for which Chinese companies, almost all of the state firms, receive favored trade status and get to the head of the queue when key natural resource assets are being sold off. Thus in Congo, Chinese have invested heavily to buy mines producing cobalt, now a key material for the electric vehicles. With Congo the major source of the mineral, it seems Beijing is seeking to corner the cobalt market. This may be one reason why the Americans have suddenly rekindled their interest in the continent. However Tillerson’s six-country tour this week is only taking in Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria.

He is going to be talking counterterrorism, democracy, governance, trade and investment with his hosts. The first three are not of consuming interest to Beijing which has been content to deal with any African regime, however repressive or corrupt. But the US needs to boost its trade and investment in the continent. American wealth and prosperity, as portrayed in the ubiquitous products of Hollywood, remain an aspiration for many young Africans. By contrast, Chinese culture has little appeal. And China’s local popularity is by no means matched by its huge investment in Africa.

One problem has been that almost all of these mega projects are being built by Chinese construction engineers using sophisticated machinery. The role for Africans has generally been confined to the lifting and shifting — a function, in war and peace, once given by European imperial powers as well as America to Chinese “coolies”. Moreover, the historic Chinese disdain for all foreigners applies every bit as much to black Africans. There have been riots and protests at the behavior of Chinese workers who live in construction camps.

But China has put its money, in considerable quantities, into Africa at a time when individual governments in the Developed World still regard the continent as more deserving of aid than significant amounts of infrastructure funding. But maybe this is about to change.