China finds itself in a lot of hot water nowadays, coronavirus has pushed many Western states to demand a reckoning, whilst its actions in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia have caused its neighbours to look on fearfully. But there is one region where China’s activities are giving Western diplomats sleepless nights and that region is Africa. With Africa now the world’s fastest growing continent being rich in natural resources and manufacturing capabilities, this is not surprising. The view that China’s investment in Africa matters is becoming an increasingly common view amongst world leaders as a consequence of these factors.
So, why is China investing so heavily in Africa? Well there are three main factors behind this decision. They are: a desire to secure a solid base of raw materials to fuel China’s own rapidly growing economy, the desire to increase China’s global political influence and the growth opportunity presented by emerging market economies within the continent.
China’s investments in Africa range from mining and oil to infrastructure with a particular focus on raw materials. These strategically sound investments have ensured that China’s rapid rise can continue through providing it with a solid base of raw materials such as platinum and cobalt and coltan-a mineral used in electronic devices such as iPhones- which thus provide fuel for Chinese businesses to expand into markets both at home and abroad, at relatively cheap prices, fueling demand and growth.
However, it is important to note that China would not have any access to this raw material base without first establishing good relations with the countries that make up Africa, and in that regard they have benefitted from Western mistakes. Unlike many Western nations, China does not have the taint of colonialism about it, and thus is likely to be viewed through a less wary lens from many African nations. This can therefore allow Chinese businesses and government officials to offer unconditional soft loans and access to capital, quick delivery of services, funding of peacekeeping and an alternative development model, without the scars of the past hanging over negotiations.
Of course, China has had to deliver on its promises and the evidence suggests that it has. China’s soft loans have enabled many African governments to avoid the pressure from global governance organisations such as the IMF to meet Western ideals of accountability and conditionality. When combined with the Chinese aid which has enabled African governments to meet their people’s rapidly growing demands for services and infrastructure more quickly, one can see why China is viewed more favourably in the region.
Furthermore, whilst many in the West would prefer Africa to follow their historical economic pathways to development, the Chinese are able to point to the fact that they have been able to lift 800 million people out of poverty through their own development programmes in just 40 years. Something that would no doubt appeal to the people of Africa who may be tired of fruitless Western promises.
So, why does Chinese investment in Africa matter?
Well, from China’s standpoint the investment matters because it helps China cultivate an entire continent of allies who want to stand by them through the good times and the bad, and given the West’s changing attitude to China, that will be more important than ever in the future. Having access to so much raw material and to a continent of people willing to buy their goods, will perhaps help China keep its rapid economic expansion going for a good period of time even if the West stops buying.
From a Western perspective, China’s involvement in Africa is alarming. For many Western countries but particularly European countries, China’s actions in Africa directly threaten their own interests in what has traditionally been seen as Europe’s backyard. With Africa and China undoubtedly getting closer as time moves on, European nations will likely find themselves being slowly shut out of the economic opportunities present in the continent which will spark nervousness. Especially as European nations and the US start ramping up antagonism toward China for its actions in Hong Kong, the South China Sea and over the coronavirus.
If China and the West part ways, both sides will want Africa to come with them, given African attitudes to both parties, right now it looks as though China will be the winner in that struggle. With Africa’s economic potential not yet reached, this is something that must be considered by Western leaders, and if they are serious about countering China, they must act on it.