China aims for ‘sustainable’ debt with Africa as Belt and Road Initiative comes under fire from West

Senior commerce official hits back at critics of infrastructure drive, saying the West has done little to boost industry on the continent

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 9:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 11:27pm

Beijing will adopt a more sustainable model for debt with African countries, a senior Chinese official said on Tuesday in an apparent bid to address growing criticism of the country’s global infrastructure drive.

Ahead of next week’s China-Africa summit in the Chinese capital, vice-minister of commerce Qian Keming also said Beijing would work to ensure that its projects on the continent met real needs.

“As the next step, we will discuss with African countries about how to promote a sustainable model for debt,” Qian said.

China has come under increasing scrutiny over its New Silk Road infrastructure drive known as the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Concerns have mounted over high-cost, low-performing infrastructure projects, raising the fear of “debt-trap diplomacy” in which unpaid loans are forgiven for strategic gains.

Qian said China was not the biggest creditor in Africa but Beijing would nonetheless make stronger efforts to ensure projects were effective.

“In general, according to the statistics we have, most of [African countries’] debt is not caused by China,” he said.

“We need to focus on selecting projects that are effective and can create more jobs, revenue and exports,” Qian said, adding that Chinese projects were also expected to create more than 900,000 jobs across the continent.

Xi Jinping says belt and road plan isn’t about creating a ‘China club’

China has been the biggest trading partner with Africa for the last nine years, with a trading volume of US$170 billion in 2017.

But in places like Kenya, China is also the biggest lender, accounting for 72 per cent of the African country’s bilateral debt by the end of March and dwarfing the amount owed to France, Kenya’s next largest lending partner, according to the Nairobi-based Business Daily newspaper.

Overall, China accounts for over 21 per cent of Kenya’s external debt.

Qian said China would focus less on providing aid and more on projects that would strengthen each borrowing country’s ability to develop independently in the long run.

Those efforts would include developing key infrastructure projects, training local workers, and sharing China’s experience of operating industrial parks and attracting investment.

The official also attacked the West’s approach in Africa, saying that unlike China, Western countries did little to build infrastructure to boost industry.

Qian’s comments add to Beijing’s growing efforts to defend its flagship initiative amid international criticism. They came a day after Chinese President Xi Jinping said the belt and road was an economic initiative and not an attempt to create a “China club”.

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Chinese analysts said the international criticism reflected growing mistrust of the programme in the West, and a more urgent need for China to review its approach.

“There are indeed some Chinese companies that have become too focused on chasing profits,” said Li Weijian, director of the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. “With all the talk about neocolonialism, China needs to prevent itself from repeating the same mistakes made by the West in the past.”

Pang Zhongying, an international relations expert at Ocean University of China, said next week’s summit would be a test of how China responded to external criticism.

“It is inevitable that as China becomes more active on the world stage and seeks a bigger role in representing developing countries, there will be more scrutiny,” Pang said.

“China will not change its overall goal and direction … but it will adjust its approach according to the changing circumstances.”