Xi Jinping

Rubbery numbers still add up to big role in Africa

Exact figures after years of deals can be disputed but China's continued spending in the continent points to a major economic relationship

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 March, 2013, 4:16am

Although there is debate on whether China is Africa's top investor, analysts agree President Xi Jinping's visit to the continent underscores China's continued role as a major economic player there.

This week, Xi visited Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo, signing scores of economic agreements. It is part of a push that has made China the biggest investor in Africa so far this year, including US$4.2 billion ploughed into two projects in the mining and energy sector, according to Mergermarket, an international provider of data on mergers and acquisitions. India is second with US$548 million, and Singapore third with US$151 million.

Mergermarket also ranked China first in investment in Africa last year - with a total of US$2.5 billion - and in 2011, with US$3.44 billion. But, UN data put China only fourth on the list for 2011, behind the United States, France and Malaysia.

Anthony Desir, a partner of Strategic African Mineral Investment Fund, an African resource consultancy, is sceptical of those figures. "The Chinese and Australians are the leading dealmakers," Desir said. Investors from the Indian subcontinent are the next big group, accounting for 30 per cent of the transactions. "We have not seen any significant Malaysian presence in the transaction flow," he said.

According to Desir's calculations, the cumulative Chinese investment in sub-Saharan Africa totals US$220 billion.

His view of China's investment is backed up by Dane Chamorro, Asia-Pacific director of British consultancy Control Risks. "Even if China was not No1, the fact remains that for the last decade it has ranked near the top and has been willing to make investments in infrastructure in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo that have trouble attracting investment," Chamorro said.

Lizzie Parsons, a senior adviser at British non-governmental organisation Global Witness, said a lack of transparency remained a big problem in getting exact figures for Chinese and non-Chinese investment in Africa. "In travelling to Africa so soon into his presidency, Xi has demonstrated the importance of the continent to China," Parsons said.

But she added: "There has been recent high-profile criticism within African countries that the relationship is unequal and does not bring sustainable industrial growth. Commentators have argued Chinese investment should be doing more to boost local manufacturing."

Chamorro said Africa was critically important for China from several perspectives: raw materials, exports, and geopolitics. "So it's not surprising that it was a focus of Xi's first trip," he said.

There had been anti-China sentiment in African countries like Zambia, because of the Chinese workers brought in for large construction projects, he added.

"It's something China has to manage carefully and be cognisant of the fact that the politics in Africa can change very quickly," said Chamorro, citing the violent downfall of the former ruler of Libya in 2011, the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, when Chinese state-owned enterprises had to evacuate their workers from the country.

Xinhua reports that China has been Africa's largest trading partner since 2009, with trade reaching US$166.3 billion in 2011 and nearly US$200 billion last year. During Xi's visit to Tanzania earlier this week, China and Tanzania signed 16 economic agreements worth US$16 billion, while China Merchants Bank signed a deal to extend a loan for the construction of a US$10 billion port in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, Bloomberg reported.

"It will be interesting to see how some of these deals work out when the governments that made them get removed from power," Desir said.

"The problem for China is it prefers to cultivate relationships with African leaders who kowtow like deferential courtiers. When the people in these countries feel left out and vote out their disconnected leaders, what will China have?"