Africa: A Chinese success story

June 04, 2018 15:55
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Alpha Barry attend a signing ceremony to establish diplomatic relations in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

The decision of Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa, to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establish relations with China, is the latest evidence of Beijing’s phenomenal success in Africa, especially since the turn of the century.

Numbers tell the story. Chinese trade with Africa in 2000 stood at US$10.5 billion, little more than a quarter of US trade with the continent, which was at US$38.6 billion.

However, by 2013, China’s trade with the region topped US$200 billion, more than twice that of the United States, which was then US$85 billion.

So successful have Chinese efforts been that the Pew Global Attitudes survey for 2015 showed that African respondents had a significantly more positive view of Chinese (70 percent), than respondents in Europe (41 percent), Asia (57 percent) or Latin America (57 percent).

Part of China’s success is no doubt attributable to a mechanism launched by China in 2000: the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, which is used by China to deal with the entire continent, not counting countries that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Thus, in 2000, 50 African countries had diplomatic relations with China, which means that they were eligible for Chinese economic benefits provided via FOCAC. At that first meeting, China canceled debts amounting to US$1.2 billion for 31 African countries and set up a special fund to encourage Chinese companies to invest in Africa.

When FOCAC meets again in three months, 53 African countries will participate, including Burkina Faso.

Now, Swaziland, a small, landlocked monarchy of about 1.4 million people, is the only African country that still recognizes Taiwan. China is openly trying to lure it over the political fence.

“Now Africa has only one country with which we have not yet established [relations],” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said. “We hope this country can join the big China-Africa family of friendship as soon as possible.”

Beijing denies that it uses checkbook diplomacy to woo countries from Taiwan. But the economic attractions are obvious.

Every three years, when FOCAC meets, China increases its financing commitment to Africa. This went from US$5 billion in 2006 to US$10 billion in 2009 to US$20 billion in 2012, doubling each time. Then, in 2015, China tripled its commitment to US$60 billion, including US$5 billion for grants and no-interest loans, US$35 billion in concessional loans and buyer’s credit and the rest in commercial financing.

In September, when FOCAC meets again in Beijing, China is expected to announce another increase in its financing commitments.

Such commitments aren’t necessarily aid. China is financing infrastructure all across Africa, building bridges, dams, highways, power plants and rail lines. Infrastructure is often financed by resource-backed credit lines, so that China is sure of getting paid back, in oil or other resources.

Moreover, infrastructure projects usually stipulate that Chinese construction companies will be the main contractors.

Africa has been important to China from the earliest days, when Chairman Mao Zedong supported revolutionary movements worldwide. The emphasis on Third World solidarity shifted temporarily after Deng Xiaoping abandoned Maoist class struggle and world revolution and sought economic development by reorienting China’s focus toward the West, with its capital, its technology and its markets.

However, after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, the countries of the West boycotted China.

Qian Qichen, China’s foreign minister who successfully broke through the diplomatic isolation, observed in his memoirs: “The first head of state, the first head of government and the first foreign minister to visit China after the political turmoil of 1989 all came from Africa.”

So important was Africa to China that Qian – who was promoted to vice premier and to the Politburo while continuing to serve as foreign minister, a feat that has not been equaled – started in the early 1990s the practice of going to Africa on his first overseas trip every year, a tradition that continues to this day, regardless of who is foreign minister.

Thus, this past January, Foreign Minister Wang visited four African countries – Rwanda, Angola, Gabon and São Tomé and Príncipe. The last named had only broken relations with Taiwan in 2017.

FOCAC also supports educational exchanges, sending teachers to Africa and providing support for Africans to study in China. Africans studying in China now surpass those studying in the US and the United Kingdom.

In fact, the current leaders of several African countries were educated in China. These include the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila; the president of Ethiopia, Mulatu Teshoma, and the president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Given such a record, it is difficult not to agree that Africa is a Chinese success story.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.