China and Africa relations should not be viewed in silosTuesday, August 31, 2021
I was happy to watch a snippet of an interview that has recently gone viral with Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley that was done with the British Broadcasting Corporation ( BBC), perfectly contextualising the relationship with China and the developing world.
It was Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's first president and a pioneer of pan-Africanism, who noted in the immediate aftermath of independence that colonialism had merely been replaced by a new form of imperialism — neocolonialism. He argued that, “The essence of neocolonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent, and has all the trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and, thus, its political system is directed from outside.”
Nkrumah also explained the different manifestations of neocolonialism, of which the most extreme is a garrison of troops on the ground. However, control is often executed through economic or monetary means. He explains: “The neocolonial State may be obliged to take the manufactured products of the imperialist power to the exclusion of competing products from elsewhere.”
There have been many articles published during the last decade which have focused on the relationship that China has, specifically, with countries in Africa. Some have dubbed this relationship a new form of colonisation. This claim isn't new, and has been around for quite a few years, but to simply brandish the relationship between China and Africa, or between any other countries in the Global South, as one of coloniser and colonised is simplistic and has stripped African nations of their agency.
I agree that the relationship between China and African countries is at times problematic; however, we shouldn't be too quick to label China as a colonial power, as to do so would dismiss the sum experiences of those who were once enslaved. It also reduces African States to mere spectators with an inability to shape their own destiny.
African States as active agents
The idea that Africans are passive actors who have little or no say regarding China's actions on the continent could not be any further from the truth. This sort of narrative, that of painting China as a neocolonial/colonial power, has the added risk of depicting African governments as victims who lack any agency.
In reality, Africans are hardly victims of Chinese dominance, and many African governments, on the contrary, acted, and continue to act, strategically towards realising their own self-interest, thus playing a decisive role in how China engages with them.
Much of what defines their relationship with China is driven by African governments, who are increasingly taking a more active role than we are led to believe. They are aware of China's need for resources, they are aware of its business practices, and they have chosen to enter a relationship which they believe will benefit their countries.
Besides, it could be argued that China's increasing dependence on Africa's resources means that African governments have increasing leverage and a hand in the bargaining process. Importantly, African leaders do have a say in how their countries are governed and the type of investments that are made in specific industries. As a result of this agency, African governments should be held accountable for any opaque deals and should not be labelled as victims or pawns in their bilateral relationship with China.
Debt on the continent
We have heard and read of a debt trap on the continent, viewed mostly through Western lenses. Former African Union chairman, Rwandan President Paul Kagame has dismissed claims of China setting debt traps on the continent and has, instead, labelled the relationship between China and Africa as one that is deeply transformational. Interestingly, according to Jubilee Debt Campaign, as of 2018, 35 per cent of debt in Africa is owed to multilateral lenders, while 32 per cent to private lenders, and just 20 per cent is owed to China.
Like Prime Minister Mia Mottley we should dismiss the lazy, stereotypical views of those held by many who are not attuned to what is happening on the continent, or even remotely in the Global South.
There is a need for loans in order to build infrastructure, fund other developmental needs, invest in education, and help the continent compete in this increasingly digital age. Who should they turn to? Loans have long dried up since the last global recession.
Countries within Africa need infrastructural development. For this to occur they also need funding. The financial crisis that lasted from 2007-2009 restricted the capacity of the United States of America and European countries to make huge investments in the Global South. Conversely, this was not the case for China.
During this period, China's outward investments in Africa continued to rise. Additionally, China provides a no-strings approach, which is an admission of not knowing what African development requires and, therefore, countries are given the liberty to deal with their own problems their own way. This approach is in contrast to preconditions that are synonymous with Western aid and loans from international financial institutions. China is therefore seen by African governments as supporting their initiatives to address those developmental issues that they deem fit.
China attempts to engage Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific on terms that are mutually beneficial to all parties, while the West presumes and dictates policy and fiscal prescriptions, which have, in many cases, led to disastrous consequences.
Chinese businesses in Africa haven't always acted ethically, but this is no secret to African leaders, who are also aware of the trade imbalances, and steps are being taken to correct such issues. There have also been reports of unsustainable business practices by Chinese businesses operating in Africa; however, in those countries where there are strict laws and regulations they do comply, such as Botswana, Rwanda, and South Africa.
What is needed is a shift in focus to escape the recurrent theme of colonialism and victimhood. African countries should put Africa first. That is what Beijing and many other countries are now doing, and this pandemic has further exacerbated this type of nationalistic behaviour.
While there appears to be significant similarities between China's sourcing of natural resources from Africa and the operations of earlier global powers, it does not, in any significant way, undermine or discount the existence of numerous key differences that give Beijing's activities in Africa a different character from that of colonialism. What prevails between China and Africa at present is much more complex, distinct from that which has been characterised under the traditional relationship between coloniser and colonised.
Shelly Ann Murphy is an international trade and investment policy expert. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com