José Francisco Lynce Zagallo Pavia is Associate Professor at Lusíada Universities of Lisbon and Porto, Visiting Professor at Sciences Po Grenoble (2022)
Much has been written in recent times about the possible chinese “invasion” in Africa. We would be witnessing a progressive replacement by the People’s Republic of China of the traditionally important role of Europe and the United States of America in trade and cooperation with African countries, particularly with those that are producers of raw materials.
In many of these writings, the idea appears that the chinese are not concerned with issues related to respect for human rights, transparency or “good governance”, – topics normally raised as political conditions by Western countries and institutions – preferring to an “uncomplicated and at the same level” relationship with African partners. The fact is that the Chinese presence in Africa is already, in almost all areas, more important than the western presence and thus the “middle empire” is definitely here to stay.
The economic factor
The economic factor is for many the main explanation for Beijing’s growing interest in the African continent, namely the need for China to supply itself with raw materials, particularly oil, to face its formidable economic development and exponential growth in exports. The African continent, with all its natural wealth, would, so to speak, be the natural supplier of the basic products that feed Chinese industries and manufactures. Furthermore, the very weakness of the social, administrative and economic structures of most African countries makes commercial and financial exchange easier without legal, environmental, social or other constraints that could hamper Beijing’s efforts.
Trade relations between China and Africa have seen spectacular growth in recent years. Chinese investment and loans to African countries have also grown at the same rate, supplanting all Western countries and international financial institutions, including those such as France and the United Kingdom, which, through post-colonial links, maintained a traditional preponderance, but also the United States of America, which has been overtaken and is now even beginning to see China’s relationship with Africa as a strategic “threat” to its own interests.
The political-diplomatic factor
The other factor that explains Beijing’s interest in Africa is, without a doubt, the political-diplomatic factor. In particular, the very expressive reduction of African states that still maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan. An unequivocal fact that demonstrates Beijing’s diplomatic success in Africa has been the number of African states that have ceased having diplomatic relations with Taiwan to exchange them for the PRC; at the moment only 1 of the 54 African States has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, namely: Eswatini, the former Swaziland.
It remains to be recalled that African states represent around ¼ of the votes at the United Nations. In many voting procedures, Beijing’s influence on the way in which many African countries position themselves, can already be noted. This policy by Beijing to “encircle” Taiwan’s diplomacy has been particularly successful in Africa. These moves by Beijing and Taipei were even taken advantage of by some African states, which tried to make the most of this diplomatic “game” by making almost a kind of “auction” whose “prize” would be the diplomatic recognition of one or another China.
With the end of the Cold War, the West embarked on a new cycle of influence, exerting greater pressure on African govnments towards democratization. These, in turn, have lost the ability to “play” with East-West rivalries and hence are unable to continue to capitalize on benefits, finding themselves in the new cycle even more dependent on the so-called “Washington consensus”. It must be said, however, that there was still room for maneuver for African countries to escape this kind of “guardianship” on the part of Western countries, which is to “play” with the rivalries and interests that persist today, particularly in economic terms.
If African countries are rich in raw materials, namely oil, they have a much greater leeway and, therefore, the ability to exert pressure on the part of the actors that aim at democratic reforms and transparency is reduced. The economic interests of Western countries, especially those linked to oil, end up prevailing over possible interests that are linked to democratic reforms and, therefore, these oil-rich countries are, so to speak, more “immune” to the wave of democratization that has taken place across the African continent.
In addition, we now have the new “players” in Africa (China, South Korea, Turkey, India and Malaysia, among others) who do not show any major concerns with Western “pruritus”, replacing the so-called “Washington consensus” with an uncomplicated and uncompromising policy, which does not intrude on the internal affairs of states, the so-called “Beijing consensus”.
A new trend in authoritarianism?
In recent years, many authors have spoken of the growth of authoritarianism in the world, which has even had a global reach. Africa has not been immune to this trend and in recent times there has been a resurgence of coups d’état and attempted coups d’état, but also of political leaders exceeding the mandates established in the constitution and taking repressive measures with regard to political rights of the population.
This trend has been linked to the increase in influence that Beijing and Moscow exercise in Africa, namely the “Beijing Consensus”. The authoritarian Chinese model would thus be imitated by many African leaders, to the detriment of the Western democratic and liberal model. This change in trend can also be seen in the way in which many African countries have voted at the United Nations, often taking positions in favor of Beijing and Moscow, as was the recent case of the vote on the Draft Resolution on the “Suspension of the rights of membership of the Russian Federation in the Human Rights Council”, concerning the invasion of Ukraine.
Eventually, this could be the price to pay for the “support” and “collaboration” of authoritarian states. As there are waves of democracy, there are also reversal tides of authoritarianism; could we are witnessing right now such a reversal tide? The snowballing effect and the role of external forces are important factors in the democratization processes, but we should not forget that they are also very important in the reversal to authoritarian rule.
The new positioning of China in global terms and, in particular, in the African continent, is part of the gradual rise of this power in the international system and the concerns it causes to traditional powers, namely the Western ones, which looked to Africa as a kind of “backyard”, where they exercised a neocolonial “quasi-guardianship”. From an African point of view, the Chinese presence means access to more varied products at lower prices, the construction of infrastructures that are absolutely essential for the development of these countries, the facilitation of credit at low interest rates and without associated conditions, the creation of jobs and business opportunities and a real alternative in terms of international business partners: today Africans can choose whether they want to do business with Europeans, Americans, Chinese, Russians, Turks, Indians, South Koreans, Malaysians or Brazilians, among others.
Beijing in Africa is a reality that is definitely here to stay; from the western point of view, it means a new competing player that has very competitive “weapons”, but which also has some weaknesses, such as, for example, the possible “poor” quality of its construction materials and infrastructure. It also represents a model that is an alternative to the classical western model, but which contains dangers such as the debt trap or a growing trend towards authoritarianism and disrespect for human rights. From the African point of view, it means a new alternative partner, with credits to be granted and opportunities to be exploited; from the Chinese point of view, Africa represents an immense market yet to be explored and a huge reservoir of raw materials essential for the development and expansion of what was once known as the “Middle Empire”.