22 December 2018
by MARY FITZGERALD
Wake up call: US national security adviser John Bolton has sounded warnings about Chinain
For more than a decade, China has been expanding its influence in Africa at a rate that has raised eyebrows in Europe and the US. From forging bilateral relationships based on huge investment deals to building the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Beijing’s engagement with the continent ranges from the predictable to the highly symbolic.
It can also be eye-catching: an estimated one million Chinese now live in Africa, seeing in the continent opportunity that eludes them at home. Some are investors; others are entrepreneurs opening Chinese restaurants and health centres; others still are engineers and labourers constructing ports, railways, airports, hospitals, schools and stadiums. An estimated 10,000 Chinese-owned firms now operate across Africa.
In addition, there are the hardy Chinese migrants I have encountered in tiny villages deep in rural Malawi or Uganda, who have literally set up shop, selling groceries to locals. In the Angolan capital Luanda, I met sophisticated, university-educated young Chinese who told me they moved to Africa because they saw it as a land of opportunity.
China’s engagement with Africa is not new but it has become more multi-faceted over the last 10 years. It is growing at such a rate that Beijing overtook the US as a trading partner with Africa almost a decade ago. The first Chinese military base outside China was opened in Djibouti more than a year ago, not far from where the US military has an operations centre.
It is this reality that lies behind the attempt by Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton to cast the Trump administration’s new Africa strategy in terms of the geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
Trump himself has paid little attention to Africa: he has not yet visited the continent and earlier this year ranted against immigration from what he described as “s***hole countries” there and elsewhere. But the hawkish Bolton, speaking at a recent event in Washington, did not mince his words.
“It’s very important for the US and the West as a whole to wake up,” he argued. In Africa, he insisted, the greatest challenge comes from a “predatory” China. “They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the US,” Bolton said, going on to argue that China uses “bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands”.
Referring to the large-scale infrastructural programmes overseen by the Chinese, Bolton argued the debts incurred were turning some countries into little more than economic vassals of Beijing. In fact, several African politicians have told me they welcome Beijing’s “pull up your sleeves and build” attitude. “The Chinese don’t treat us like hopeless charity cases,” as one put it. “They come here, ask what we need and then they build it.”
Last month, Tanzania’s president John Magufuli said he prefers Chinese to Western aid as it comes with fewer conditions: “When they decide to give you, they just give you.”
That said, China has also faced criticism in Africa over poor labour practices, sometimes shoddy infrastructure projects and what some see as another – albeit different – neo-colonial approach.
Bolton announced a new programme called “Prosper Africa” which he said would see the US presenting alternatives to the Chinese approach to development on the continent but he conceded Washington had limited means to compete with Beijing’s massive investment there.
In September, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU should offer a free-trade agreement to the whole of the African continent and a new investment alliance. The latter he said could create up to 10 million jobs in Africa in the next five years. While Juncker made reference to China’s growing push in the continent, the main frame for the conversation about EU- Africa relations these days is migration.
Africa’s population is expected to double in the next three decades to 2.5 billion, half of them under 24. The focus now is on development funding that helps African countries provide opportunities for this youthful demographic at home. Juncker argued the EU should move away from merely providing development assistance and instead treat Africa as an equal. The Chinese often present themselves as such in Africa, arguing theirs is a “win-win” scenario for both. Time will tell whether the continent eventually tilts more east than north.