Africa is a Chinese success story

By Frank Ching  / 

Sat, Jun 09, 2018 - Page 8

The decision by Burkina Faso, a landlocked nation 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 the US’ trade with the continent, which was US$38.6 billion.

However, by 2013, China’s trade with the region topped US$200 billion, more than twice that of the US, 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 China (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 (FOCAC), which it uses to deal with the entire continent except for nations that have diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

In 2000, 50 African nations had diplomatic relations with China, which means that they were eligible for Chinese economic benefits provided via FOCAC.

At the first meeting, China canceled debts amounting to US$1.2 billion for 31 African nations and set up a special fund to encourage Chinese firms to invest in Africa.

When FOCAC meets again in three months, 53 African nations are to participate, including Burkina Faso.

Eswatini, a small, landlocked monarchy of about 1.4 million people, is the only African nation 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 Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) 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 nations 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 and 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 are not 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 are to be the main contractors.

Africa has been important to China from the earliest days, when Mao Zedong (毛澤東) supported revolutionary movements worldwide.

The emphasis on third-world solidarity shifted temporarily after Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) 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, Western nations boycotted China.

Then-Chinese minister of foreign affairs Qian Qichen (錢其琛), who successfully broke through the diplomatic isolation, said 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 Chinese Communist Party’s politburo while continuing to serve as foreign minister, a feat that has not been equaled — in the early 1990s started the practice of going to Africa on his first overseas trip every year, a tradition that continues to this day, regardless of who is minister.

In January, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi visited four African nations — Rwanda, Angola, Gabon, and Sao Tome and Principe. The last only broke relations with Taiwan last year.

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 UK.

The leaders of several African nations were educated in China. These include Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila, Ehtiopian President Mulatu Teshome and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

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

Frank Ching opened the Wall Street Journal bureau in Beijing in 1979. Before that, he was with the New York Times in New York for 10 years.