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China in Africa: Has the Messiah come?

Publishing Date : 18 September, 2018

Author : LAWRENCE OOKEDITSE

As Africans, we need to come out and play. But first things first: stop expecting that other people will take care of your interests. The Chinese are no different from the West. The basics are the same – they both come for what is in their interests It is now time for African countries to also map out their own interests. Let’s go into these negotiations and meetings with our own hidden agendas.


“China follows the principle of giving more and taking less, giving before taking and giving without asking for return”, various news channels cited China premier Xi Jinping as having said at the 3 September 2018 forum where he detailed a “win win-win” principle. It needs not be said that this principle being enunciated here is a phony.

For one, China stipulates in its agreements that Chinese corporations and nationals be employed to deliver most of the projects it undertakes. A significant share of Chinese aid actually comes in the form of natural resource securitised loans and is easier to pledge than to actually make good on. As we speak, Zambian copper mines are reportedly falling to the Chinese having failed to live up to lending conditions. Not that these are bad things from China: rather, these are clear examples of how shrewd the Chinese have been to place a veil of ignorance on those they deal with to make them believe that it is actually true that the Chinese are angelic in their dealings.

Be this as it may, African countries and their leaders have a moral and legal obligation to take care of their countries’ interests. Chinese leaders have the same obligations towards China. The basis of co-operation on any endeavour is then founded on this. Who wins or loses is an equation of which side is able to best carve out a deal that works for them. Talk, therefore, that China is taking advantage of African countries is not exactly correct. The nature of the game is to take advantage of whom you can.

African statesmen and their envoys should be the ones under the microscope: are they efficient and sophisticated enough to take advantage of China? If they are not as shrewd then we will get the raw end of the bargain. If they are, then China may lose. Better still for everyone, a win-win may be achieved if both sets of envoys are at par.

In analysis and corridor talk on Africa-China relations, there seems to be an expectation that China be “nicer than the west”. This is misplaced optimism. The foundation of relations in the international sphere is the pursuit of one’s interests, and such interests are often selfish. In internal state matters governments are ethical and concerned about moral perspectives and judgements. In international affairs, states and statesmen care about their countries’ interests primarily – the other party’s interests matter only as a platform from which to bargain.

Let me elucidate: Say China agrees to buy low grade coal from Botswana, or to construct a rail road across the continent. The underlying intent would not be to help Botswana grow its economy by buying the coal. The deal happens because China needs the coal; because the net benefit to Chinese industry is greater than the price it pays to get the coal. To Botswana there may also be a benefit in employment and resource tax but that would not have been China’s primary goal.

The primary goal is in the interest of China and this is perfectly fine. It is how it is. The same applies to a rail road across Africa – it would improve connectivity and the freighting of goods but that would not be the underlying motive from the Chinese. Their true motive maybe to ensure that they ease their unemployment burden through having their nationals come work on the rail road; through having their corporations come lay the rail road; or even to ensure that their strategic interests are taken care of. Even more, China may just be making sure that it ensnares African countries so much that they do not get anywhere close to recognising Taiwan or threaten China’s myriad of territorial claims in the South China Sea

Note for instance that the kingdom of Eswatini was the notable absentee as African countries queued up for the possible Chinese windfall. Eswatini is known to recognise the sovereignty of Taiwan hence its exclusion. It is probable that its exclusion was a demonstration, though tacit, to the present African countries of what happens to those that recognise disputed Chinese territorial claims.

As well, it is common discourse that the Chinese have their own trade disputes with the US and would seek to leverage elsewhere given that the US are their biggest trading partner. To lessen the likely blow of any fallout they may have to look to Africa – this would not have been clearly spelt out in the negotiations- you do not expect that it be. In short, what appears like a deal to mine copper may actually, to the Chinese, be a geo-strategic posture to protect an interest of theirs that is not even at the negotiation table at that particular time. This is perfectly acceptable, and to be expected.

And nothing is wrong with that in the practice of international relations. It is acknowledged that deceit, treachery and selfishness are a part of the trade. These are not holy waters. The neo-realist world order is no different from what it was under classical realism- states still seek to amass power, both hard and soft (arms and diplomacy) with which to take care of their own interests. There are times when mutually beneficial interests collide, and when they do you have a win-win. A great deal of the time though, each state looks out for its selfish interests as ought to be.

As Africans, therefore, we need to come out and play. But first things first: stop expecting that other people will take care of your interests. The Chinese are no different from the West. The basics are the same – they both come for what is in their interests It is now time for African countries to also map out their own interests. Let’s go into these negotiations and meetings with our own hidden agendas. Go into these negotiations with what you have on the table advancing your other interests that you may not exactly spell out to the other contracting party. The world is not a nice place. There is no point pretending it is when it is not.

African leaders should not just praise China for being a good partner whose aid comes without stringent conditions. They must pick development projects with high viability and commercial value; the policy options should also be on things that will help spur growth such that even when the Chinese harvest from their investment, the African countries also do the same. Let’s ensure that the projects the Chinese engage in have high economic growth value and insist on sustainability. After all, we clearly have a rare leverage over China, especially when we go in as a continental block and given the China’s own squeeze from the Trump administration in Washington. We are in a position of rare strength, but only if we recognise it.

The problem with some African statesmen has been that their biggest underlying motive in cooperation with China has not been development economics. It rather has been regime survival. China gives aid and loans- but pledges to not interfere in the political and development issues of African countries. In short, President Xi Jinping is saying we will give you support, but we do not care whether you’re corrupt, kill your own people or engage in electoral Gerrymandering to keep the opposition from competing for power or you take money from state resources and invest it in offshore slush funds for your personal gain.

This is a key difference. The Chinese no doubt have their own issues with corruption. But you see, their major underlying motives when engaging are around the interests of their expansionist ideals and their trade wars with the USA. Meanwhile, for some African countries, the underlying motives are neither development nor geo-strategic – they are for regime survival. In China declaring non-interference in internal affairs, such regimes find funds that they may not account for and regime longevity. If regimes and envoys would flip the coin and negotiate with the strategic interests of their people at heart the wins we get form this relationship would be enhanced.

For Africa then, it is not yet uhuru. China is a partner like the rest. But to get true benefits Africa has to look into the detail, become hawkish in its dealings and look more on sustainable developmental projects. The international sphere is not kind, do not expect the Chinese to be. There is no Messiah to come and save us. Lawrence Ookeditse is Consultant and Analyst in Politics and International Affairs. He is a former Director of Youth for the Botswana Government. This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick

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