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China-Africa relations

China shakes up old order of Western donors with surge in aid to Africa

As US considers taking a step back on foreign aid, countries such as Japan and India are trying to counter Beijing’s growing clout in the region, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2018, 5:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2018, 5:02am

China’s surge in financial support to Africa has upended the established order of global aid led by the United States, and other countries such as Japan and India are trying to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the region, analysts say.

As China continues to expand its footprint on the continent, which it sees as a key part of its global infrastructure drive, it has shaken up the old order dominated by Western donors and former colonial powers, and prompted a shift in Africa’s relations with other countries.

In a move that will add to China’s increasing clout in the region, President Xi Jinping on Monday announced US$60 billion in support to the continent, as leaders from more than 50 African countries met in Beijing for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. That commitment comes on top of the US$60 billion pledged at the summit three years ago.

But it comes amid concerns over mounting debt and the trade imbalance between China and Africa, as well as scepticism from the West about Beijing’s intentions in the region and beyond under its signature “Belt and Road Initiative”.

Pang Zhongying, a foreign affairs specialist at the Ocean University of China, said China’s foray into Africa over the last two decades had created tensions with traditional players in the region, particularly the United States and the European Union.

“In the past, assistance given to Africa – which has been led by the US – usually goes through multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and related agencies under the United Nations,” he said.

Pang added that China’s increasing efforts to promote its approach in Africa had been a source of unease and wariness in the West.

“China’s approach has been donating the aid directly to countries instead of going through Western-led institutions,” he said. “In the past, China’s attitude was to focus on its own path and to set itself apart from other powers. Now it’s trying to promote the idea that its approach represents the world’s future – and that’s really made the tensions with Europe more apparent.”

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China’s expanding presence and bigger financial pledge to African countries comes as US President Donald Trump is considering making cuts to foreign aid, and Africa would be affected the most with an expected reduction of 35 per cent.

Over the past 18 years, the US has given US$97.67 billion in official development assistance to sub-Saharan Africa, with infrastructure projects and humanitarian aid the top priorities.

China does not disclose its aid information, unlike countries in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development. But a recent study by US-based research lab AidData, at the College of William & Mary, said China committed US$354.3 billion to foreign aid between 2000 and 2014 – close to the US total of $394.6 billion. There was a clear emphasis on infrastructure, with funds going to projects across energy, transport and communications.

Japan is also putting more focus on Africa. In 2016, it pledged US$10 billion for farming, energy, roads and ports on the continent through 2019.

Ilaria Carrozza, a researcher on China-Africa relations in London, said Beijing had a broader interest in Africa than the US.

“There’s definitely been a shift from policies that were mostly focused only on trade and investment to more military and political engagement,” Carrozza said.

“I think that sometimes we tend to overestimate US interest in the continent. The US is interested in very, very narrow strategic and military aspects of the continent.”

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Japan and India are among the growing list of countries looking to the resource-rich continent, signing an economic cooperation pact – the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor – with a number of African countries in 2016.

“Despite having a far smaller influence than China, India and Japan have been seeking to counter China-Africa cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative with the growth corridor,” said Yao Guimei, a senior research fellow with the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

“But there could also be room for cooperation between the three parties in third countries.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Zheng