As a leading investor in the African continent, Beijing aims to reap more and more benefits from the mineral-rich continent but the fast changing reality on the ground may throw up major hurdles.
China takes raw materials from Africa, converts them into finished goods in China, and then sells them in African markets.
For a long time Western states and nonstate actors were held responsible for the spread of neo-colonial activities in Africa. What many people on the continent perhaps did not imagine was the rise of China as a power centre with policies that remind many of British colonialism in Africa.
When Mao Zedong died in 1976, China’s economy began to change. The country’s desire to become a regional power brought it to the shores of Africa. After the death of the China’s People’s Republic founding father Zeodong, the country shunned some aspects of its isolationist policy. Deng Xiaoping came to power as a market-friendly leader and placed greater emphasis on modernising the entire economy, putting the state's inward-looking political ideology on the backburner. This ushered in a period of unprecedented economic growth and foreign investment.
In Africa, Beijing's approach is trade and aid.
Today the country is Africa's largest foreign trade partner. A surprising turn of events, considering that trade between the continent and China was very low in the 1960s. In 1980, the total Sino-African trade volume amounted to one billion US dollars. In 2010, mutual trade volume was worth $115 billion. These included Chinese imports from Africa. They consisted mainly of ores, crude oil and agricultural products. Chinese exports totalled $93 billion and consisted mainly of finished products. In 2018 the trade volume increased to $170 billion.
China became not only Africa's largest foreign trade partner, but also one of its largest lenders. Throughout the continent, Beijing provides loans to countries for railways, stadiums and other major infrastructure projects. In 2014, China's President Xi Jinping praised then Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as an experienced liberation leader and an "old friend" of the Chinese people, while both countries signed nine undisclosed contracts. Earlier that year, China signed a similar billion-dollar contract for railway construction with the government of South Africa.
Recently, agreements were signed with Chinese help for the construction of a new railway line in East Africa from Kenya's port city of Mombasa to Nairobi and finally to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. Important infrastructure projects such as the Mandela National Stadium in Uganda, a $1.7 billion dam in the country’s west, and the highway between Entebbe and Kampala, were built by Chinese companies.
Experts say that many of these loans are unlikely to be profitable for China. If these projects do not meet the conditions of the loan, China can directly control them and use them for its own interests. This tactic, known as "debt trap diplomacy", has been used by China several times. One example is Sri Lanka. When the debt burden became unsustainable in 2017, the government was forced to give up majority control of the port of Hambantota instead of repayment. This port was handed over to Beijing for a period of 99 years.
Some say China is in Africa for the sake of China. China in contrast claims to be there for Africans. One is for certain: Chinese influence in Africa increases immensely. And there is no stop in sight.