Looking East: Chinese Trade and Investment in Africa

Sebastian de Beurs

Chinese investment and trade in Africa has increased dramatically over the past 15 years. Trade in goods between China and Africa reached $160 billion in 2013 – a sixteen folds increase from the year 2000. The origin of Chinese enthusiasm in Africa is obvious; over 80% of Chinese imports from Africa are minerals. Adding to the numbers are a million Chinese immigrants, mostly labourers and traders, who moved to the African continent in the past 10 years. What has spurred China’s rise in becoming Africa’s biggest trading partner? And what are the consequences of Africa looking East?

China has taken over the role of Europe as Africa’s prime trading partner. Scholars investigating International Relations are seeking to explain the increase in Chinese trade and investment in Africa, as well as its consequences for the world’s poorest continent. Dr. Lesley Blaauw of the University of Namibia highlights the differences between established Western and emerging Chinese trade in Africa. Blaauw argues that the ready acceptance of Chinese economic avenues by African states can be explained by “the fact that Chinese trade and loans carry less prescriptions than that of Western counterparts since the 1980s.”Blaauw and fellow African scholars are keen to criticize international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), as well as the World Trade Organization (WTO). They argue that rather than promoting African development, these institutions function as instruments of Western hegemony over the developing world. Blaauw explains that “agency in global trade governance” has been the “exclusive domain of great and strong powers,” not economically weak African states. Blaauw says that Chinese engagement with Africa, however, contributes to African states showing “increasing agency” in the international arena. Chinese trade and development serves as a “powerful antidote to the policies of the West,” Blaauw argues.

Is Chinese trade and investment in Africa really working as elegantly as Blaauw claims? Some African leaders are critical of the swift expansion of Sino-African trade. The former governor of Nigeria’s central bank, Lamido Sanusi, says Africa is falling trap to a “new form of imperialism.” In this neo-imperialist setup, China imports primary goods from Africa and sells it manufactured goods. In the process, Africa does not acquire the skills or industry necessary for manufacturing – the wealth ends up flowing East.

In 2015, China finally responded to this accusation of neo-imperialism. Beijing sent its foreign minister, Wang Yi, on a tour of the continent in January 2015. On the trip, Yi tried to quiet concerns by stating that China “absolutely will not take the old path of Western colonists.” The rhetoric is part of a broader Chinese appeal to Africa that, according to Dr. Dominik Kopinski, stresses the “commonly shared roots with African nations as a developing country rather than a Western state.” Whether this appeal will prevail depends on the agency African states will show as China’s economic and political ambitions continue to expand on the continent.

(Source: Quarts Africa 2018).

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