W(h)ither China in Africa?

Pádraig Carmody
Author of this article
Professor in Geography at Trinity College Dublin and a Senior Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg.

Kilamba Kiaxi in Luanda, Angola

China’s relations with Africa are in a period of flux. This is driven by the dramatic scaling back of lending under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in recent years, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent greater importance of Chinese soft power projection on the continent. What will future China-Africa relations look like post-COVID and how will the legacy and impacts of previous rounds of engagement affect them?

The BRI, announced in 2013, is Xi Jingping’s signature foreign policy initiative and was touted by him as the “project of the century”. It is a major programme of infrastructure construction, amongst other elements, around the world. It was driven by the twin and related desires or imperatives to create new markets and vent surplus Chinese capacity overseas thereby contributing to the country’s continued ascent in the international system. As such it conforms to what geography David Harvey refers to as a “spatial fix” where the contradiction between the highly developed forces of production in China and its still relatively low wages, resulting in lack of adequate markets, are reconciled through displacement to other territories. Harvey notes that spatial fixes are always unstable, however the BRI appeared to reach an early apogee in 2016 after which loan funding for ports, railroads and other projects around the world essentially collapsed. ‘Lending by the China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China collapsed from a peak of $75bn in 2016 to just $4bn last year’ (Wheatley and Kynge 2020). What explains this dramatic contraction?

The BRI is an inherently contradictory meta-project partly because it is both geoeconomic and geopolitical. China sought to use it to both alleviate domestic economic problems and embed allies around the world, thereby ensuring its continued ascent in the international system and re-orienting the global system to the East. However the geopolitical impetus meant that investment and loan appraisals were often loose, often resulting in under-performing projects, as has often been the case in China itself. This has sometimes been referred to as a form of “debt trap diplomacy”, however this is to misunderstand the dynamics at play.

The construction of a debt trap to reduce borrower sovereignty implies intentionality, whereas this, for the most part, appears not have been the primary motivation. Nonetheless the BRI has in some cases been implicated in the construction of debt traps in specific places. For example, by the end of 2017 China already accounted for about 44% of Zambia’s debt (CARI cited in Ofstad and Tjønneland, 2019), exhibiting features of moral hazard where politicians take out debt for short-term economic and political gain to the longer term detriment of the public good. Zambia subsequently became the first African country in recent times to effectively default on its overseas debts.

Such debt traps and public concern over often under-performing projects has resulted in a dramatic scaling back of BRI funding globally and in Africa. However, China has engaged in substantial so-called “mask diplomacy” on the continent during the COVID-19 pandemic, through donations of vaccines and personal protective equipment for example, while Western powers have largely engaged in vaccine nationalism. This has burnished China’s reputation on the continent and is complimentary to other Chinese soft power efforts in recent years (Benabdallah, 2019). There are also reports that Chinese oil companies are diversifying supplies away from the continent as a risk reduction strategy.

The reduction of BRI lending to the continent, and reduced exports to China, with exports from Africa falling by nearly a quarter in 2020 all suggest a shift in focus from geoeconomics to geopolitics in Sino-African relations, even as the continent remains a crucial supplier of raw materials. Also even as primary commodity exports from the continent to China fell in 2020, Chinese exports to Africa continued to rise (Nyabiage, 2020) suggesting its continued importance as a market destination, necessitating continued good political relations. All of this suggest potential greater importance of aid as a vector of engagement in future Sino-African relations, although the contradictions which gave rise to the BRI still remain unresolved, with potential to destabilise the Chinese economy further. If that happens the seemingly immutable rise of China in Africa, even if the emphasis on different vectors of engagement shifts through time, would be dramatically undermined.