Why China is ramping up investment in Africa5 min read

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(Last Updated On: 15/09/2018)

While the world is busy with proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, immigration to Europe & Donald Trump’s Twitter account, China is playing a much more sophisticated game in order to consolidate its power.

When we speak of power politics in the context of International Relations, what makes a country powerful is in part due to its size in terms of population and combined GDP. Of course, perception of power can also play a role according to the Social Constructivist view.

Throughout the late 1990s, China was still not recognised as a political power strong enough to threaten the United States. In the early 2000s, China’s economic productivity was increasing every year resulting in a similar outcome of GDP to that of the United States. This was helped by its huge population which was managed as such that human capital resulted in an exponential growth of productivity.

The population of China was 1.379 billion in 2016 compared to 323.4 million in America. In that same year, China’s GDP was $11.2 trillion while America enjoyed a GDP of $18.57 trillion, and therefore held a higher GDP per capita.

Judging from the numbers, China is quickly catching up to the United States in terms of economic output, but should surpass the United States in the coming years given the large discrepancy in population

But what is China really doing with that power? While America and Russia are busy fighting proxy wars in the Middle East, China is making power moves elsewhere. China does not practice short-term foreign policy like their American counterparts. Rather, the country is motivated by long-term goals with a vision of a new Chinese equilibria. Perhaps democratic elections are “impeding” US hegemonic growth, as presidents seeking re-election will naturally place short-term, tangible objectives ahead of long-term national power consolidation. The bottom line is that tangible, short-term objectives will more likely get US Presidents re-elected.

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In 2000, China launched a platform for cooperation with Africa called the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Through this cooperation, Chinese trade to Africa was enormous. In 2015, during the forum’s 3rd summit, China announced that it would provide $60 billion in funding to Africa for developing its infrastructure. This month, during its 4th summit hosted in Beijing, there was a clear future-centered policy for developing a strong Chinese-African community through cooperation. Today, there are more than 10,000 Chinese firms and corporations in Africa, some of these in North Africa – notably Algeria.

China is bringing infrastructural development, capital investment and aid to Africa like no other nation-state. 16% of the world’s population lives in Africa, and the continent holds 30% of world reserves of hydrocarbons and minerals. Africa is also rich in raw materials and energy, resources considered scarce for the Chinese government. As an emerging global power with impressive economic capability and manufacturing capacity, China pinned Africa as its present investment and future outlook. Africa, therefore, became Beijing’s next business priority.

While many argue that China’s involvement in Africa is nothing but a repetition of Europe’s historic colonisation of the region, that argument is very much Western-centric and derives from a US-oriented understanding of International Relations. Unlike the United States, China does not develop imperialist policies using soft, cultural power. Rather, China’s “sharp power” is continuously developing technological capabilities in a cyber world, indicating an ability to use technological and economic progress to politically and diplomatically advance China’s role in the global political economy.

The game that China continues to play on the world stage is rather smart. While the US and Russia come out with grandiose statements on world affairs, China plays cunningly & quietly. The government plays the game in a manner that does not drive global attention. That way, they begin, finish and sustain projects without substantial interruptions. That is why we rarely hear about China’s involvement in Africa or in the South Pacific. The world is, instead, occupied with Russian and American involvement in Syria and Yemen.

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China’s involvement in Africa is mostly economic in terms of trade and infrastructural financing. However, there are rumours about a military involvement that takes the form of a Chinese military base on the coast of Somalia.

China’s outlook for the future is overwhelmingly significant. China is working towards the largest trade project in the world: The One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI) that opens up trade links between China and the Eurasia-African zone. The Mediterranean Sea is especially important, connecting Europe, Asia and Africa. China’s BRI uses the Mediterranean as its hub for the initiative. This suggests that China’s interest in Somalia is also geopolitically driven due to its proximity to Yemen’s Bab-el-Mendeb naval chokepoint.

The BRI is divided into two components. The first is the Silk Road Economic Belt, and the second is the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI). Together, these initiatives connect China and Europe as well as Africa through land and water.

In a world where power is constantly contested, China has to gain trust and allegiance from other nation-states in order to fully implement this one-of-a-kind project and clearly surpass Germany as the next potential superpower. On that front, China has been spending billions of dollars to purchase development and operational rights across South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and some parts of South America.

It may look like what China is doing in Africa is nothing but economic in nature. But do not be fooled. China’s choice to pin Africa next to Shanghai – or as many call it “China’s Second Continent” – is far more than just economic in nature. What China is doing in Africa and elsewhere is a smart game that may change the entire global equilibrium of the political economy.