China’s expanding role in Africa will benefit all sides
African countries see industrialization as key to growth and China has the skills to make that happen
Trade and investment invariably grab most of the attention when Chinese and African leaders meet. The US$60 billion in development aid over three years pledged by President Xi Jinping at the recent China-Africa summit was jaw-dropping. But just as important as the announcements was the unveiling of a 10-point blueprint for cooperation and partnership. If the ambitious plan can be turned into reality, the continent will be transformed for the benefit of both.
Although China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner and seventh-largest investor, the way it does business does not always sit easily with Africans. There is a perception that natural resources are being exploited to feed Chinese industrial output and the goods produced then exported, their low cost forcing out African competitors. Chinese infrastructure projects are not seen as creating jobs or sharing the skills and technology Africa needs.
Trade is heavily lopsided in China’s favour and few African goods end up on Chinese shelves. But it is not true that China’s only interest in Africa is its natural resources. Chinese companies last year signed more than US$70 billion in construction contracts that will produce vital infrastructure. Nor is the accusation that Chinese firms only use labour imported from China valid: the vast majority of workers are local hires. Beijing does not interfere in the internal affairs of African countries and its aid and loans have no political strings attached.
Still, China is acutely aware of questions about its role and its blueprint aims to ease concerns. Among the areas it will help Africans are industrialisation, modernising agriculture, poverty alleviation and security. In addition to grants, zero interest and favourable concessional loans, debt relief and export credit lines, there will be training programmes for 200,000 technical workers, 40,000 government scholarships and 2,000 educational opportunities. Through strengthening relations between both peoples, there will be greater understanding and mutual respect.
The benefits can also be mutual. African countries see industrialisation as key to growth and China has the skills to make that happen. Similarly, ensuring peace and security through financial and military assistance to the African Union’s army, contributing to UN peacekeeping forces, boosting counter-intelligence cooperation and helping mediate crises will aid Africans while protecting Chinese interests. Reshaping ties in this way is in line with China’s efforts to restructure its economy, but African countries will also have a stronger path of growth.