China-Africa: From debts to benefits

Haitham Nouri , Wednesday 18 Jan 2023

China’s foreign minister began his tenure by refuting the “debt trap” narrative in Africa and promoting the “exchange of benefits” principle, reports Haitham Nouri



In the footsteps of his predecessors, China’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Qin Gang embarked on an eight-day five-nation African tour, asserting the position of the continent in his country’s international policies.

The tour included Ethiopia, Egypt, Gabon, Angola, and Benin and stops at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa to meet with the AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki and at the Arab League in Cairo to sit with its Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit.

Since 1991, all Chinese foreign ministers began their tasks with African tours and Qin is no exception.

Before assuming this position in late December, Qin had served as the Chinese ambassador in the US, where he argued that the so-called Chinese debt trap in Africa was instead a case of mutual benefits.

According to the China Africa Research Initiative of John Hopkins University, the largest countries in debt to China in 2020 were Angola ($25 billion), Ethiopia ($13.5 billion), Zambia ($7.4 billion), Congo ($7.3 billion), and Sudan ($6.4 billion).

Between 2000 and 2020, Beijing gave more than $140 billion to African countries, which is a very heavy debt on the exhausted economies of the continent.

In a press conference with Faki in Addis Ababa, Qin refuted the groundless allegation that China is creating a “debt trap” in Africa, which is “a narrative trap imposed on China and Africa.”

“African countries have in recent years been actively working to promote economic and social development, but lack of funds has become a major bottleneck to Africa’s prosperity and revitalisation,” he added.

Since the mid-1960s, China announced its cooperation with the newly independent African countries at the time on the basis of “exchange of benefits” between independent peers who “do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.”

Accordingly, the Chinese project to link the copper mines in Zambia, a landlocked country in southern Africa, to the port of Dar es-Salaam in Tanzania, was launched to open in 1974. Until present many consider it the largest Chinese project in the continent.

In the 1970s, China’s presence in Africa was manifested in large buildings in the capitals of the continent, such as the Sudanese-Chinese Friendship Hall in Khartoum, as well as in Lagos, Nigeria, Luanda, Angola, to name a few.

However, in the early 1990s, cooperation took a turn with “African countries demanding more serious development, in exchange for China taking the raw materials found in African countries,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim, a professor at the Institute of African Studies at Cairo University.

It is widely known that China vehemently rejects the interference of Western countries in its affairs, and on the other hand, it does not interfere in the affairs of African countries, asking instead to “exchange benefits.”

“Over the past three decades, infrastructure projects have been implemented in Africa with Chinese funding in return for exporting raw materials on the continent for the growing Chinese industry,” according to Ibrahim.

China built in African countries hundreds of kilometres of paved roads and railways, power and water generating stations, sewage networks, social housing, and government buildings. In return, Chinese ports received from Africa oil, woods, raw materials, cotton, and forest animals, such as elephants, lions, and hippos.

With the fall of the government of the Rajapaksa brothers in Sri Lanka and the exposure of the large amounts of debts to small African countries owe to China and following Chinese companies’ acquisition of 85 per cent of the strategic port of Hambantota with a 99-year contract, in addition to 15,000 acres affiliated to it as an industrial zone, “fears began to grow of China’s debt trap”, said Ibrahim.

“In addition to Sri Lanka’s experience, the Chinese economic growth rate declined, which prompted Beijing to demand that its African allies pay their debts. However, most African countries were unable to pay back except by mortgaging some of their assets to Chinese companies,” he continued.

“How to balance development financing with debt growth is an issue that all countries must face head-on in the course of pursuing development,” said Qin at the press conference, adding that “projects and cooperation carried out by China in Africa contributed to Africa’s development and the improvement of people’s lives. The African people have the biggest say in this.”

“Some countries rejected these projects, such as Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada  Bio, who refused to build an airport in the capital, Freetown, with Chinese funding of $400 million,” said Ibrahim.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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