Seeds of Influence: Chinese Activities in Africa

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“China has long understood the value of relationship-building with the African continent and has developed personalized inroads to meet its goals in the region.”

China has long understood the value of relationship-building with the African continent. As Beijing expanded its presence beyond East Asia during the late twentieth century, it enacted a long-term foreign policy strategy with the continent, including a consistent influx of bilateral diplomatic visits, economic partnerships, and ‘goodwill efforts.’ The increasing connection is evident in how the volume of China-Africa trade has increased 17-fold since 2000. 

To gain a foothold in Africa, Beijing has tailored its activities to plant four main seeds of influence: 1) infrastructure and technological development aid to build up dependence on Beijing; 2) economic incentives to coerce decisions and win concessions; 3) soft power initiatives to become relatable and ingratiate themselves to the people of the continent; and 4) a political war of attrition to achieve a persistent presence in and personalized knowledge of African nations. 

It is important to note the lack of military intimidation. Whether the military absence is due to the sheer distance from the Chinese mainland or a perceived lack of military threat is un-evidenced. China did open its first foreign military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in 2017, but there has been a lack of attention paid to the 0.5 km2 support base since.

Infrastructure and Technological Development Aid

Multiple African nations have welcomed Chinese infrastructure and technological aid, which typically focuses on telecommunications, satellites, transportation, internet connectivity, 5G networks, and agriculture technology.

For example, China helped Ethiopia launch its first satellite into space last December and signed a $72 million deal with Egypt in January 2019 for a “MisrSat II” satellite project. A recent May 2020 report by the China-Africa Research Initiative calls space infrastructure “crucial to the more commonly studied dimensions of Africa-China relations.”

However, some African parties remain wary of China’s offers. Controversial labor practices and a lack of transparency have caused resentment against the Chinese among some locals, and concerns about neocolonialism and ‘debt book diplomacy’ are rampant. By September 2019, China’s Huawei had spread its AI surveillance technology to over 50 nations worldwide and set its sights on helping African authorities establish their own AI and cloud computing platforms. While projects like this are directly helping impoverished African states build their technological capacities, they have simultaneously bred unease both domestically and internationally.

This wariness is also borne from the questionable sustainability of Chinese funding. Last September, construction on the Sinohydro Kafue Gorge hydroelectric dam in Zambia was suspended. To the north in Kenya, China’s investment rates decreased last year while Japan’s investments in the country jumped 165% from the previous year. Although unproven, these inconsistent development commitments could be augmented by the ongoing U.S.-China trade war and the economic downturn from the coronavirus.

Economic Incentives

In company with infrastructure development and diplomatic favors, Beijing still wields the ability to grant economic loans and incentives. Like development aid, these loans are met with mixed reviews from Africans. At present, African governments and state-owned enterprises reportedly owe China more than $150 billion. Despite the infamous “debt traps” and concerns of surveillance and lack of labor rights, most African nations cannot afford to reject China’s tempting ‘goodwill’ offers.

Soft Power Initiatives

Amongst the monetary and technological aid, soft power initiatives in Africa are on the rise. Beijing’s national image has been tarnished by ‘debt traps’, poor labor rights associated with the Belt and Road Initiative and, most recently, the coronavirus that originated within its borders. Now, it aims to regain warm relations and relatability with the locals by building relationships based off a common third-world solidarity as it did after the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. These initiatives—any of which can provide platforms for propaganda—include student exchanges, biodiversity cooperatives, tourism, television broadcasts, and joint research groups to resolve issues like food shortages that have been plaguing the continent for decades.

In an attempt to assuage the perception of China as unscrupulous, Beijing has championed “education diplomacy” in the form of a university scholarship program and literature promotion campaigns like “China Shelf.” At the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised Africans “50,000 (university) scholarships and 50,000 training opportunities” over the next three years. These new figures increased by 66% compared to 2015 and “dwarf” parallel initiatives in other countries. Also, direct flights between China and Africa have skyrocketed over 600% in the last ten years, and more Chinese and African students, tourists, workers, and businesspeople are trading places.

As part of its literature campaign “China Shelf,” China donated books to the Nairobi International Book Fair and to Kenya’s national library service “so as to establish sections dedicated to Chinese literature.” Simultaneously, while Beijing publishes scathing articles on Western abandonment of Africa, Xi’s nearly-complete 10,000 Villages Project beams Chinese television channels to a massive “10 million subscribers in 30 African countries.” Chinese media control in Africa is more concerning than its infrastructure projects and begs to question whether Washington is paying enough attention to Chinese activity on the continent.

Political Warfare

Lastly, while rarely addressed forthright, political warfare is widespread and well-known. In Africa, it appears as regular joint conferences, personalized diplomatic visits, bribing of elites, and the constant touting of Sino-African joint victories.

African and Chinese leadership commonly shine the spotlight on their special friendships and mutual trust. Last September, Chinese Ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian said “[w]herever you go in Africa you will see infrastructure built by China.” A week later at the United Nations, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi “called for solidarity between China and African countries” while meeting with African members of the UN Security Council. Wang also “called for more international attention to the continent.” The African foreign ministers present described relations with China as reliable and “based on equality and mutual respect.” These reaffirmations of the amiable relationships serve as constant reminders of China’s presence, aid and capabilities.

Looking from afar, foreign policy experts are concerned how other governments’ “indifference created the vacuum in Africa that Beijing was able to fill” and wonder whether Western nations are ‘too little, too late’ to start acting. Observers’ interests in Africa are growing in theory and rhetoric but ultimately remain concentrated around counterterrorism, humanitarianism and democracy-building. The need for technical aide and the xenophobia brought by the coronavirus pandemic has only invigorated Chinese attention to and tensions in the region. While these increased tensions may open a door for other nations to gain a lasting influence in Africa, their governments may be too consumed with resolving domestic issues and end up leaving Africa to China—which they very well could end up regretting in the coming years.

Jessica L. Martin is a researcher in the Washington, D.C. area specializing in U.S.-China relations and security studies.

Fortress International L.L.C. is a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business

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