Africa’s changing landscape: Sino-Western competition and contrasting models.

Chinese loans in Africa by country (Graph by Fikayo Akeredolu, DPIR, University of Oxford) 

By Elijah J. Magnier:  

The geopolitical race for influence in Africa is accelerating as global powers such as the United States and Russia intensify their efforts to forge distinctive ties with the continent. The United Nations predicts that Africa’s population will double to 1.1 billion by 2050, driven by rapid urbanisation, eventually surpassing two billion people. As the International Monetary Fund has confirmed, this growth positions Africa as the second fastest-growing continent in the world. This trajectory marks the end of the “first scramble” for Africa’s resources in five centuries. It heralds the emergence of a “second scramble”, driven by its burgeoning markets, abundant natural resources, human capital and strategic maritime links with other continents. 

China has set its sights on Africa, launching a series of ambitious projects and infrastructure developments to connect the continent’s nations and challenge its Western counterparts for supremacy. Europe’s historic colonial powers, which once held sway over African lands, are now grappling with diminished influence, facing backlash from some African nations and losing their foothold in others. France, for example, has faced expulsions from two countries, Mali and Burkina Faso, and rising populist sentiment against its presence in the region, mainly in Niger. 

China’s engagement with Africa dates back to the Ming dynasty in 1644, and this historic relationship continues. In particular, China supported Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal 1956, leading to student exchanges and a cultural bridge between the two regions. Unlike China, which focuses on economic projects and infrastructure to expand its influence, the United States and France are concerned with military bases and counter-terrorism efforts in Africa. 

As China’s new foreign minister Wang Yi embarked on a tour of African countries, he underlined Beijing’s unwavering commitment to its relations with the continent. China’s strategy is based on a soft approach to cementing ties, a policy in place since 1991. China’s proactive approach was highlighted by the launch of the ‘Silk Road’ initiative in 2013, which saw the creation of 46 new and renovated African ports connecting Africa to the rest of the continent. This investment has secured its position as the largest investor in sub-Saharan Africa. Beyond traditional projects, China’s engagement spans various sectors, including education, healthcare, technology and scientific research, further consolidating its foothold in the region. 

During a significant Sino-African summit, President Xi Jinping pledged billions of dollars to support the continent’s development, with a significant portion earmarked for development projects and interest-free loans. China has also cancelled substantial African debt, demonstrating its commitment to promoting progress.  

When many African countries were in debt distress in the 1980s and 1990s, China cancelled more than 85% of the interest-free loans outstanding at the time. According to the China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at Johns Hopkins University, between 2000 and 2019, China has cancelled at least $3.4 billion in debt, almost all of its interest-free loans to African countries. From 2022, China said it would forgive 23 interest-free loans to 17 African countries and redirect $10 billion of its International Monetary Fund reserves to nations on the continent.  

Critics, meanwhile, raise concerns about China’s growing influence in Africa, often depicting it as a debt-laden conquest. However, data from the World Bank shows that 49 African countries owe 39% of their debt to multilateral institutions, 35% to private creditors (excluding Chinese private creditors), and 12% of the continent’s debt burden is owed to China and Chinese lenders. In 2021, private lenders will charge 5% interest, while China and multilateral lenders will charge 2.7% and 1.3%, respectively.

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