China, the world’s second largest economy, has had well-known economic and political ties to the African continent ever since its fifty-four countries began their respective journeys to becoming independent nations, free from European rule and subjugation.
In the decades following, China, under its communist leadership, vehemently supported many independence-minded political groups in the fight against the faltering European powers through the funding and arming of their various militias. These actions set the precedent for China’s current policy in Africa, which entails being a powerful economic and military partner to Africa, posing as an alternative to the much reviled western rule, which has not benefited Africa as much as it has the west.
Since the end of conventional fighting on the continent, China has continued its involvement through the funding of a plethora of projects throughout the continent, as a part of its “Belt and Road Initiative'', which seeks to fund infrastructure across the continent and provide loans, in exchange for favorable opinions towards China and voting along with China at the UN. While this policy is not exclusive to Africa, as one major, if not the biggest, benefactor of the program has been Pakistan, China’s initiative has been hugely influential for Africa, and has provided much needed funding for infrastructure projects which can benefit intra-African trade, as well as African connectivity with the rest of the world.
This current precedent, however, is being challenged by China’s traditional African allies, such as South Africa, who seek to refocus Chinese support from funding infrastructure projects, to aiding the industrialization of the continent. China has already invested heavily in African infrastructure projects to boost the interconnectivity of the continent, to much success, however African leaders say that the next step in ensuring Africa’s future as an economic powerhouse is in aiding the industrialization process, such as investing in businesses and increasing the manufacturing capabilities of the continent.
This sentiment was formally echoed at the recently held BRICS Summit in South Africa, where the calls for change were warmly welcomed by the Chinese representatives in attendance. The Director-General of China’s department of African affairs at their Foreign Ministry, Wu Peng, especially noted that a shift towards aiding the industrialization of its African allies is much needed given the backdrop of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement, abbreviated as AfCFTA, which was launched at the beginning of 2021 to facilitate free trade throughout the many budding economies.
From the African perspective, this refocusing is seen as a natural next-step in the long-standing Chinese economic policy on investment in Africa, as well as a much needed change. China’s investments and effort to facilitate free trade on the continent have aided interconnectivity on the continent, although the business sectors of these same countries they are trying to connect have been faltering. For example, much of the investment money given to these nations to build said infrastructure projects is circling back to China, as Chinese contractors are the ones who are taking on these massive projects, not African ones. In this aspect, many African governments are beginning to feel cheated out of investment, as their locals are not gaining any significant skills, and the only benefit being paid to the locals is the infrastructure project, void of any positive side effects such as the training of skilled laborers, or the growth of local African construction and engineering firms.
Moving forward, the future of the industrialization of Africa, as well as the strength of Chinese-African relations, lies in how well the Chinese Government’s policy on African investment can shift from hiring Chinese contractors and employees for massive projects to one of investing in local businesses and aiding in further economic development. Given the warm reception to the proposed renegotiation by the representatives of the Chinese government, we can expect to see a push in investment to local economies in the near future.