How China is building the future in sub-Saharan Africa – and why the US needs to rethink its approach

Eric Mboma says China’s role in Congo’s economic and infrastructural development shows the nature and reach of its global aspirations, whereas America’s focus on political institutions and humanitarian goals is proving less attractive than actual jobs and growth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 May, 2016, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 May, 2016, 2:00pm

While much is made of China’s expanding footprint in Asia, the reach of its global aspirations can be seen in Africa. The Democratic Republic of Congo reveals the complex dynamics of China’s interaction with the continent, and the inability of the US to balance it.

The fundamental reason for this state of affairs is that American and Chinese foreign-policy priorities in sub-Saharan Africa, of which Congo is a part, diverge considerably.

According to a 2013 study conducted by the US Government Accountability Office, America’s goals include building democracy, promoting development, supporting commerce and strengthening security. Beijing, by contrast, emphasises its mission of establishing closer ties with African countries. Its principles of engagement include seeking mutual benefit, and not interfering in the domestic affairs of African countries.

Beijing’s pivot towards Africa

While economic engagement features on the agendas of both nations, the US’ democracy-building efforts differ markedly from China’s stance. In Congo – as, actually, anywhere else in the developing world – states prefer the pursuit of economic interest over being pursued by others over democracy and human rights.

This is understandable: states are inherently conservative in defending their sovereignty. But what is more interesting is that the Congolese people themselves exemplify the general African preference for Chinese economic investment over American humanitarian aid and calls to strengthen democracy.

As Jacob Kushner argues in an article published in The American Interest, it is “clear that the Congolese admire the Chinese model founded upon private enterprise and non-interference in their domestic politics”. It is not that Africans are apathetic to the necessity of democratic structures: no people are, no matter what their governments say. Rather, it is that political norms sound hollow when economic and infrastructural development is woefully inadequate in meeting basic material needs.

The Congolese prioritise economics over politics for obvious reasons. The country is among the poorest in the world, with per capita income standing at a mere US$380 in 2014 and the poverty rate towering at 63 per cent in 2012. It was ranked 176 out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index last year.

However, it is actually a rich country with poor people. Two-thirds the size of the European Union, it has 80 million hectares of arable land and contains more than 1,100 identified minerals and precious metals.

Within resource-abundant Africa, it is home to the biggest reserves of precious ores, including diamonds, gold, cassiterite, copper and cobalt (of which Congo houses the largest reserves). The country’s estimated mineral wealth is a staggering US$24 trillion – equivalent to the combined GDP of the United States and Europe! No wonder the World Bank believes Congo has the potential to become one of the richest countries on the continent and a driver of African growth.

What s required is an economic model that will work for the country.

Applying what is known as the Hausmann Rodrik Velasco methodology to Congo, the four main “binding constraints” that are specific to its economic environment are: government failures; lack of finance; lack of energy infrastructure; and lack of transport infrastructure.

The World Bank believes the investment needed in Congo is one of the highest in Africa. The bank has supported a study that comprises a prioritisation framework for infrastructure, and has placed the scope of investment needs at some US$5 billion a year.

Experts argue that no two developing countries will face the exact same set of constraints, and attempting to categorise them in that way will be unproductive.

This is where China makes a crucial difference. Its Congo policy is targeted specifically at developing infrastructure, in keeping with the Harvard economists’ methodology. By contrast, US policy appears to be one-size-fits-all, and relatively less tailored to the specific needs of Congo.

Roads, schools and hospitals built by the Chinese have transformed the country’s economic prospects. Indeed, Congo has posted a respectable annual average economic growth rate of close to 8 per cent since 2010, well above the average for sub-Saharan Africa.

Today, China is going as far as setting up local operations in Congo to export commodities back to its own industrial sector. China reaps the lion’s share of dividends from the partnership, but the Congolese, too, benefit. For example, Congo’s inability to cut and finish the diamonds for which it is famous was a drag on development.

US strategy remains caught up in a political time warp even in the face of Chinese advances

Congo is a part of the Chinese strategy of economic development. China does not possess sufficient strategic resources to fuel its industries. Hence, it has been procuring them abroad, locking up supplies by encouraging state-owned enterprises and private companies to strike exclusive mining deals worldwide.

China already has a monopoly over rare earth elements, which are key ingredients for most hi-tech manufactured goods, including cars, television sets and mobile phones. Congo is one of the few places that boast a dependable supply of these elements. This is a source of the synergy between Chinese and Congolese interests.

By contrast, US strategy remains caught up in a political time warp even in the face of Chinese advances. US aid has gone largely into the improvement of health care and other humanitarian areas while China speeds ahead with helping Congo’s infrastructure development.

Not only does American economic coyness impinge on countries such as Congo, but it also touches on American interests themselves. For example, the Chinese locking up of oil resources in Africa may affect US energy security because Beijing would have the ability to take these oil sources off the world market and use them exclusively for its own industrial development.

The truth is that the US cannot afford to ignore China in Africa any more than in the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East.

While Sino-US rivalry is not as acute as was hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union during the cold war scramble for Africa, today’s rivalry is real. As in the Middle East, the Chinese are making incremental gains in Africa even as the Americans are challenged to maintain the strategic status quo, which is to their advantage.

In the Asia-Pacific, of course, the Chinese are closing in rapidly. The establishment of the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank against Washington’s wishes is a case in point.

Congo exemplifies the need for America to refocus its diplomatic attention to Africa, with a strong emphasis on economic and infrastructural development, in order to balance China’s global ambitions.

Eric Mboma is the CEO of Standard Bank Group, Democratic Republic of Congo and a Harvard Kennedy School alumnus. The views expressed here are personal