Marriage of Choice or By Default? Evaluating Sino-African Relations

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In late 2021, when I was taking an Uber home, I got into a conversation with the driver. They had arrived late, and while I did not mind, they sought to explain themselves. They explained that they were stuck behind a Chinese driver; “hata hawawezi kuendesha gari, lakini wamekuja kuchukua kazi yetu na rasilimali zetu (they can’t even drive properly, but they have come to take our jobs and resources).”

While the sentiment expressed did not shock me, as it is – whether justly or unjustly – commonly held amongst, in the very least, ‘average’ Kenyans (i.e. the proverbial Wanjiku), the openness with which they expressed it did. It had been years since I heard the heady concoction of prejudice and fear, coloured by a hint of anger, expressed so openly towards another race in Africa. And even longer still since I had experienced the anxiety such an expression elicited within me.

The last time people had imbibed such a concoction, Kenya experienced the worst electoral violence in a generation. So, to see these fears and prejudices externalized to a group outside our national make-up was, at the very least, troubling. Yet it is becoming a wide-spread continental reality. Critical approval of Chinese engagement in, and with, Africa has dropped nearly 10 points in 14 years from 72% in 2007, and 63% in 2021. Though the consequences of such drop have yet to fully manifest themselves, particularly in the political realm, they do raise interesting questions on the state of Sino-African relations.

China’s Relationship with Africa

Much ink has already been dispensed debunking the myth of China’s “debt-trap” diplomacy. At the core of this debunking is the affirmation of African autonomy and capacity for self-determination, an oft ignored aspect in the telling of the story of Sino-African relations. The truth is, African countries were neither tricked, nor manipulated into engaging with China. They did so out of the cardinal principle of international diplomacy: self-interest. Given that (1) infrastructure is still seen as the key to development; (2) Africa’s infrastructure gap requires as much as $170 billion a year by 2025 and; (3) Africa’s traditional donor partners – Japan, US, UK and the EU – only provide conditional loans for projects they deem necessary and safe, Africa turned to China.

Conversely, and critically, China was not only willing and able to engage with Africa, but was willing to do so on our own terms. Thus, for Africa, Sino-African relations are economic in nature. In return, China built a large network of countries that not only recognise its pre-eminent status on the world stage, but will actively reinforce China’s attempt to reclaim its historic role as the centre of the world. This feat is made possible by the operationalization of the Belt and Road Initiative which is first, and foremost, a political project. Suggesting that, for China, Sino-African relations are primarily, political, in nature.

Understanding that Sino-African relations are political, from China’s perspective, and economic, from Africa’s, informs both the unspoken expectations and perceptions of the relationship. In Africa, China’s contribution to the continent is judged in economic terms: number of jobs gained versus number of jobs lost, industries supported or thrown to the rafters, or the ripple effects of Chinese-funded and built projects.

In these terms, Sino-African relations have, until recently, been generally viewed as quite positive — from the development projects that connect citizens to each other, to the new industries these projects catalyse, to the thousands of jobs created, and the technical skills transferred. Conversely, for China, Sino-African relations are judged in political terms: support on the international stage and, more critically, silence on ‘sensitive’ matters; like China’s human rights record, in general, and China’s ongoing genocidal campaign against the Uighurs, in particular.

Scepticism of Chinese Lending

As Africans re-evaluate the worth of Chinese-funded infrastructure projects, they are increasingly critical of not only the debt accrued, but of the potential impact of that debt, including political domination, recolonization and the very same loss of autonomy the debt trap myth forewarned. These fears abound, despite China’s promise to not interfere in the domestic politics of their partner countries, because in politics, as with life, perception is everything.

In recent years, African citizens have perceived their governments to be all too willing to capitulate to China’s interests in the local sphere. For example, in 2018, when Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, banned the import of fish from China in response to local outcry over China’s market dominance in a local market, the Chinese government used the Standard Gauge Railway as leverage against Kenya. They allegedly threatened to completely pull funding for the project, as well as threatened to impose trade sanctions, if Kenya did not relent. As you can imagine, soon after, the Kenyan government lifted the ban of Chinese fish imports.

While blame for these decisions should lie squarely with the Kenyan Government, we should not discount the power asymmetry that motivated this course of action. This asymmetry is a natural consequence of the social nature of debt. As argued by Tim Zajontz, “debt is a social relation marked by asymmetrical material relations and power differentials between debtor and lender.” These asymmetries typically favour the lender and often motivate self-directed choices that, in the very least, attempt to not anger or challenge the lender. The result of these choices is to add fuel to the fire of growing scepticism over Sino-African relations and legitimise the prejudices and fears of ordinary Africans.

This scepticism is further exacerbated by terms of Chinese lending. The terms resemble the colonial contracts which enabled the colonialism we have yet to heal from. First, most of these contracts were negotiated in secret and operate esoterically. Second, contracts are governed by Chinese law and disputes, if they arise, must be settled by arbitration in Beijing. Perhaps most problematically, these agreements contain a detailed waiver of sovereign immunity that extends beyond the nation to its assets. This clause in particular has given rise to worries that China could seize assets should the debtor default.

However, sole responsibility for these agreements should not lie with China as, ultimately, the choice to assent lies with the local government, even if geo-political factors leave Africa with no choice but China in order to realise the infrastructure gap.  Nevertheless, to a public traumatised by the continued colonial experience, the loan agreements, in particular, are perceived as the first step in recolonization, irrespective of what the State publicly asserts.

In fact, given how little Africans trust their governments, the frequent, explicit assertions of state autonomy may have the opposite effect. They may, instead, be perceived as wholly performative and perfunctory, designed to placate the public and assuage their fears. This is because, although the agreements have never been solely economic in nature, now their political nature, and risk, has become conspicuous.

A good example of this is the loan agreement between China and Uganda, regarding the development of the Entebbe airport. In the agreement, China’s Export-Import Bank requires that all revenue earned by the airport, totalling $68 million per year, be used to cover the loan for the next two decades. This represents not only a significant loss of autonomy, but reveals autonomy to be a privilege, within the African context. This privilege was further restricted by, according to Carlos Mureithi, the Bank’s demand for “the right to reject or approve the annual operating budgets of the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority.”

Altogether, the terms of the agreement represent a significant political risk that emerged only when the financial expectations were not met, and the Entebbe loan agreement is not the only example of this. In 2008, when South Africa attempted to extend the import quotas on selected textile and clothing imports from China implemented two years prior to protect their domestic industries, China rejected the extension, no doubt favouring its own industries over that of their partner. South Africa could not reinstate the quota, lest they risk losing China’s investment aid and thus the quota was abandoned. Here, as well, the political risk – embodied through the denial of autonomy – is visible.

In this visibility, the perception of these agreements has changed, as have the perception of the Chinese State, the Chinese Government and the Chinese people. The reason why this shift flows downwards – from the state to the people – is because grievances against the state are projected unto the nationals of that state. This is because nationals are far more accessible and ‘tangible’ than a nebulous, abstract and, crucially, distant state. Thus, as Africans perceive their governments as incapable of protecting their interests because they prioritise foreign interests, they unjustly express this frustration at the most tangible signifier of foreign interest dominance: Chinese nationals.

As a result of this evolving perception, a new challenge for Africa arises: how should we respond to the rising anxieties associated Sino-African relations? Should these fears be regarded as legitimate, and justified, or as irrational and, ultimately, destructive?

Responding to Rising Anxieties About Sino-African Relations

Addressing the last of these first, analysts Aidoo and Hess (2015) note that emerging anti-Chinese bias are “not a rejection of China, per se, but rather more broadly to neoliberal orthodoxy…[that] is widely associated with impoverishment, powerlessness, and the loss of … autonomy over [our] economic affairs.” Contextualised in this manner, the rising fears of Chinese domination are not about China, but about the domination and the prospect of economic exploitation. Indeed, the way in which these fears have manifested show this to be true.

If one were to survey the incidents of violence against Chinese migrants on the continent, one would find that these violent attacks typically target factors of production controlled, or owned, by Chinese companies or managed by Chinese migrants. These attacks should not be confused for expressions of xenophobia itself, as demonstrated by the anecdote at the beginning, for they are instead the logical conclusions of verbal expressions of xenophobia. Nevertheless, both are rooted in a similar fear: the loss of control over factors of production.

For the Uber Driver, the factor in question was labour; they were worried that Chinese nationals were stealing jobs and work meant for Kenyans. Other manifestations of xenophobia across the continent also follow this logic. In 2008, Chinese workers and managers were killed in Equatorial Guinea and Sudan. In 2010, in Zambia three Chinese managers were killed by rioting workers at a copper mine. In December 2014 violent riots broke out in Madagascar when workers at a Chinese-owned sugar mill burned the factory and looted sugar stocks after demands for better pay and permanent contracts for some 1300 seasonal workers were unmet.

Yet, while one can understand the fears that motivated with these actions, their violent manifestation cannot be, and must never be, justified. Not only because violence, as a means of societal expression, is never justified, but also because neither the Chinese state nor its nationals in particular should not be the target of expressions of discontent with the status quo. Instead, those complaints should be laid at the feet of the African governments, with whom Africans have a social contract. They, and not Chinese nationals, should be held responsible for the harm, imagined or otherwise, Sino-African relations have wrought within Africa.

For it is they who sought out China’s aid, signed financing contracts with China and, in so doing, animated long-standing questions on the preservation of autonomy in light of debt’s power asymmetries. The failure of African governments, in general, and African politicians, in particular, to correct the record and educate the public raises the first question asked above: how are they responding to emerging anti-Chinese bias?

Where there is bias lies the potential for weaponization, whether that option is exercised or not.  Many African nations were forged out of the struggle for the independence that placed our colonisers as our objects of aggressions, and rightfully so. However, following this independence, the tribal differences that were preyed upon, manipulated and enhanced by those colonisers, persisted, making themselves known in our electoral politics. As a result, much of African politics is not issue-based but tribal in nature. Yet, the original object of aggression – the fear of, and resistance to colonial urges – continues to bind Africans together. It, therefore, stands to reason that activating this fear in electoral politics would supersede the tribal connections that characterise our politics. This is thus how many African politicians respond to emerging anti-Chinese bias: co-opting it as a political strategy.

In 2011, Michael Sata, a Zambian opposition leader, successfully used anti-Chinese sentiment amongst Zambians to win the Presidency. According to Aidoo and Hess (2015), Sata was able to “mobilize a multiregional and multi-ethnic opposition and overcome the advantages enjoyed by the incumbent party [by] … ‘playing the China card.’” A decade later, in 2022, Musalia Mudavadi and William Ruto in Kenya, have invoked the spectre of debt, in addition to class consciousness, to rally their base as the new opposition.

While Mudavadi and Ruto may not explicitly reference the holders of Kenyan debt, the fact that it is widely known that China is Kenya’s biggest lender – accounting for 67% of external debt – suggests the mobilisation of anxieties about Sino-Kenyan relations, fears of rising debt levels and lack of trust in public institutions through dog-whistle tactics. Both of these examples demonstrate the characteristic willingness of politicians to act expediently rather than honestly. Yet, such actions will not bear fruit in the long term for one reason: the reality of governance.

Upon entering government, Sata reneged on many of the promises he made to the electorate.  For example, despite promising to limit borrowing from China, Zambia’s external debt, currently estimated at 30% of its GDP, reached nearly $5bn in 2022, up from $1.9bn in 2011. This is because of the realities of governance post electoral victory (i.e. the burden of governance) and the necessity and attractiveness of Chinese investment to facilitate development disincentivises the continued weaponization of anti-Chinese xenophobia as a political tool once one is in office. Indeed, as discussed earlier, development aid from China continues to be the most attractive for Africa for one simple reason: autonomy, at least on a prima facie basis. Therefore, despite the great potential that exists with anti-Chinese sentiments as a tool of political mobilization, this potential is undercut by the realities of governance.

This does not mean that the sentiments will die down. In fact, they are more likely to change as Beijing’s relationship with Africa changes. Presently, Sino-African relations are shifting as Beijing shifts from an emerging actor, seeking to acquire access to the African market, to a status quo player with assets, citizens and market share that it seeks to protect from domestic threats and outside challengers alike — much like the Western counterparts Africa has run away from. However, these sentiments will always be tempered in politicians by the need to finance development and China’s attractiveness as a partner in this endeavour. Accordingly, we must ask if, in the long-term, China is the best partner for Africa?

Thinking Long-Term

Despite scepticism with which growing Chinese investment in Africa is viewed in this article, I, do, believe that China is best partner for Africa, for now. This is owing to the unconditionality of China’s loans and its insistence upon non-interference in domestic matters. As a result, Sino-African relations do a better job of preserving a modicum of our autonomy, on a prima facie basis and notwithstanding the inherent power asymmetry of debt. However, it should be noted that we do not have a choice. China is the only one who is willing to finance the projects Africa needs to bridge the infrastructure gap, without the costs associated with traditional donors. This makes China the best option for Africa, by default — a status that complicates matters.

For to ally with a partner only because the other options are far worse is like marrying a partner by default. Although likening the complexities of international relations to the realities of marriage and courtship, is trite, it, nevertheless, captures the essence of what one should look for in a partner. Above all, the decision to be bound to another should be a choice made primarily out of desire and mutual interest, not a choice that emerges ‘by default.’ Increasingly, the conditionality of Western loans, coupled with their history of neo-colonial practices, has left China as the only alternative.

This creates a situation similar to that experienced by newly-independent African states in the 1960s and 1970s – where devoid of alternatives, they signed agreements whose terms were not beneficial to them and, in the long-run, entrenched Africa’s status as the supplier of raw materials for an entire generation. Given the shift in Beijing’s status, as identified above, how likely is it that they, too, will not behave like the West, when the time comes?

Consequently, African leaders must remember that the goal should not be to ally with a partner but to use China to catalyse, and operationalise, intra-African trade and investment. This means developing, and vocalising to an anxious public, an uncoupling strategy that is applied progressively. Put simply, it means deciding when enough will be enough. By using China in this way, the question of debt, and its corrupting effect on sovereignty, can be answered with the promise of self-reliance. By reframing China’s role in our plans, the threat of negative integration as a tool of political mobilization can be answered with the promise of true independence.

This is the only way to ensure that the benefits from Sino-African relations, which are in no way automatic, are tilted to our favour, even as the costs of such relations continue to avail themselves.  Perhaps then, and only then, will Africa be able to insist upon its independence, without fear of retaliation.

Aileen Waitaaga Kimuhu is a young lawyer, currently hiding from practice, from Kenya, with an interest in the intersection between politics and culture, the operation and evolution of neocolonialism and African history.

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