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China in Africa Forum

May 28, 2018 10:59 AM
By Merlene Emerson

China's foray into the African continent probably began during the Ming Dynasty when Admiral Cheng He voyaged the coast of Somalia and on to the Mozambique Channel. With President Xi Jin Ping's Maritime Silk Road and Belt and Road Initiative, China's interest in African countries has entered a new phase, playing a significant role in its foreign, economic and geo-political strategy.

Members of LIBG and their guests were treated to a most informative and thought provoking forum at the National Liberal Club on 21 May chaired by Phil Bennion on the theme of "Chinese Influence in Africa - Who Benefits?"

The answer depended on whose perspective of course, and the first speaker, Rebecca Tinsley was deeply sceptical as to whether the African people were the beneficiaries. A journalist and human rights activist, Rebecca has worked in 9 African countries and founded "Waging Peace," an NGO in Sudan and "Network for Africa," a charity working with survivors of genocide.

From Angola to Zambia, China's billion dollar investments often went into vanity projects lining the pockets of the corrupt elites. Whilst the amount of contributions from the US and China were broadly equivalent (circa US$350 in 2014) this was largely in the form of aid or ODA (Official Debt Assistance) in the case of the US, but OOF (Other Official Flows eg loans for commercial purposes) in the case of China. Infrastructural projects were also opportunities for graft to be paid out of oil and other valuable resources, leaving the beneficiary countries with expensive debt and "toll booths leading nowhere".

We had as second speaker, former Transport Minister Noel Mbala from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was able to speak with authenticity and conviction on the problems facing African countries. He blamed not so much Chinese investors as the African politicians and governments for not having a strategic development plan, nor the appropriate skills to negotiate a better deal for their countries. In his experience the Chinese tended to bring in the majority of the labour force with little transfer of technology. There have also been cases of small Chinese sole traders going over and operating in competition with the local African people.

LIBG executive member Paul Reynolds focussed his presentation on China's hydro-carbon ambitions in the Horn of Africa. A slide of a satellite photo showing China's Obock naval base and that of America's Camp Lemmonier near the port of Djibouti summed it up for me: this was as much a race in military expansion as well as economic development. What is China's offer to African leaders in terms of infrastructure financing and natural resource exploitation and can it remain politically neutral in areas of conflict such as in DRC, South Sudan and Ethiopia? To quote Paul: "Under President Xi, the era of amateurish foreign policy is over. And with it the end of the peaceful rise of China?"

The put that question to rest, we had as our final speaker Counsellor Shao Zheng from the Chinese Embassy. He was quick to assure us that for China and the 3000 Chinese companies currently operating in Africa, what they sought was a "win-win" for all parties concerned. He has personally visited 10 African countries and highlighted that it was the support of China's African friends that had carried China to the United Nations in the 1970s. When President Xi visited Africa in 2015, he had pledged $60bn of assistance of which $5bn were grants and $35bn preferential loans.

An example of a successful project was the railway linking Nairobi capital to the port of Mombasa in Kenya. That had created 46,000 jobs of which 90% went to the locals. China is now the largest trading partner for Africa and the largest contributor of a peace keeping force. The naval base in Djibouti was for fighting against Somali pirates, nothing more sinister, and China's objective overall was to work with the African Union (as well a third party countries such as the UK) to help with Africa's development.

There followed a lively Q&A, where many agreed that China's current role in Africa was not too different from what had occurred between the West and Africa. The Cold War had been an excuse for propping up certain regimes, now it's the fight against terrorism. New policies and conditions on western aid appear directed towards stopping migration into the EU, but as Mr Mbala asked, why were the people trying to leave the Continent in the first place? Wasn't it time for us to consider the needs of the African people? And as Liberals, we have a moral duty too to help promote good governance in Africa and require China to adhere to international norms on corruption, fairer debt agreements and greater transparency with regard to their military expansion.