In eighteen years since the first Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) gathered in Beijing bringing the Chinese and African leadership together a lot has been achieved and a new reality is putting its mark on the world stage. The record speaks for itself. From a marginal player in the continent and a modest volume of trade of little over $10 billion, last year that volume exceeded $170 billion and the figure showed a 14 times increase over the previous year, a significant indicator of how fast and deep Chinese-African trade relations are performing.
The main feature of this development is evolution that characterized the three main stages. The first was during the reign of Jiang Zemin (1993-2003), who launched the strategy of “Going Out” to encourage investments and tap natural resources and get access to commodities that was followed by the period of Hu Jintao (2003-2013), who paved the way for more diplomatic and commercial access, which was termed “Peaceful Rise”. Both helped lay the foundation for the third stage of Chinese Dream, which took its way during the current rule of Xi Jinping and is better known as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which aims at constructing transportation networks that connects the three continents of Africa, Asia and Europe along the famous old Silk Road.
During these stages China managed to work in some 2500 development projects and public works throughout Africa. But more significant is the growing Chinese lending to the continent countries. According to a study by John Hopkins University Chinese loans stood at $86 billion up to 2014 and that before the $55 billion in additional loans and export credits promised later by President Xi in Johannesburg, thus China became the biggest creditor to Africa and according to a US State Department calculations many in sub-Saharan African countries have national debt accounting between 50 to 200 percent of their GDP and that between 50-80 percent of that debt is Chinese.
More significant is the growing Chinese military and security presence in Africa, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) joined in 2003 and for the first time in a UN peace keeping force in Liberia. After all these years, China now is the biggest contributor to peace keeping missions among the UN Security Council five permanent members. As of 2008 Chinese navy continued to maintain a presence in eastern littoral against Somali piracy, a presence that was topped by establishing the first Chinese military base overseas in Djibouti.
The remarkable Chinese build-up of its presence in Africa at various levels came at the expense of the old European colonial powers and even the United States, who though does not carry a colonial heritage, have played an inspirational role for the new regimes in the continent. Except for mainly unsustainable policies, Washington in most cases dealt with Africa on an ad hoc basis and according to some geopolitical concerns. And it was that concern about the Chinese presence in Africa that found its way in the National Security Strategy adopted by the Trump administration. That concern was expressed in s way by the previous Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who drummed his worry about the Chinese and advised his African hosts in his trip to the continent in March to be careful of pouring Chinese money.
But African countries on their part mainly welcome the Chinese approach as it stays away from meddling in an embarrassing way in issues like human rights and corruption.
Sudan is not away from this. It was one of the first countries to benefit from these new Chinese strategies of going out and shop for commodities. It was through this that Sudan managed back in 1999 to join the club of oil producers. Though Sudan continued to brag that it provided Beijing with its first gateway to the rest of Africa, but without debating such claim, the fact remains: this is history and today Sudan is not even in the list of the ten African countries that host 75 percent of the Chinese investments in the continent. The list includes Nigeria, Algeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, Angola, Niger, Sierra Leone, and Cameroon.
And that brings to the debate more serious domestic issues that relate to governance, transparency, democracy and accountability. External powers are going to operate within a domestic environment and are not going to impose change for the better if there is no domestic constituency for that change.
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