Nations tend to have peaceful relations when they develop trade agreements that benefit all parties involved. This, in fact, is one of the great arguments in favor of the international free market (the other, namely, is the more obvious one: prosperity).
This does not mean, however, that there are not those who build instances of abuse. Such is the case of China which, since the implementation, in 1999, of the “Go Out” policy (a strategy that encourages local, mostly state-owned, companies to invest abroad), has sought to assert itself as a leading nation in the world.
It was free trade, and obviously not communism, that lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty. Although Chinese practice is closer to mercantilism than to capitalism and free markets, this fact alone is cause for celebration. However, in addition to the profoundly totalitarian nature of the Communist Party, China has become, internationally, a kind of all-powerful bully that no one dares to stop.
This reality is particularly visible in Africa, where the foreign drive is ideologically tinged and confuses “investment” with “colonialism”. Moreover, China replaced the United States as Africa’s main trading partner more than ten years ago.
Academic Mary Edel Madeleine Wan Yan Chan explains that China has three main interests in Africa: natural resources (oil and minerals essential to the Asian country); the niche market that Africa represents (which China can seduce with low-cost manufactured goods); and finally, political influence through an “alternative development model” to that of Washington.
In Africa, practically every massive new project receives financing through the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), the project through which China will form a set of rail and sea routes with Europe in the first instance, but which affects 60 countries, 75% of the world’s energy reserves and 70% of the world’s population.
There is also a lending policy (which does not necessarily fall under the BRI category) that creates huge debts owed to China by the various African countries. As former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained, “Chinese investment does have the potential to address Africa’s infrastructure gap, but its approach has led to mounting debt and few if any jobs in most countries. When coupled with political and fiscal pressure, this endangers Africa’s natural resources and its long-term economic and political stability.” In fact, China holds at least 21% of African debt, with repayments accounting for nearly 30% of 2021 debt service.
These investments are neither anodyne nor merely commercial. There is uncertainty as to the profitability of some projects. To date, it is not known whether they will generate enough economic activity to repay these loans. The interest, then, lies elsewhere.
By fostering a network of countries dependent on its investments, China ensures that certain notoriously developing nations look the other way when the free world condemns its authoritarianism in Hong Kong or its concentration camps for Uighurs.
According to Eric Olander, co-founder of the China Africa Project, African foreign policy often boils down to not offending China. “As poor and developing countries – many of which are also heavily indebted to Beijing and dependent on China for most of their trade – they are not in a position to withstand the immediate blow that would come from upsetting China,” he added.
Gordon Chang, an Asia specialist, said, “Once [China] locks in countries and makes them dependent. Beijing gets their support for geopolitical goals, and one of these goals is undermining democracy.”
And along came COVID. Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus pandemic, China’s expansion on the African continent has been magnified. “Vaccine diplomacy” has spread to 13 countries in the form of purchases or donations (a figure that the West has not been able to match). It should be noted here that China is also part, along with several Western countries, of the Covax mechanism).
Antony Blinken, Secretary of State in the current administration, said in this regard that “we’re not asking anyone to choose between the United States or China, but I would encourage you to ask those tough questions, to dig beneath the surface, to demand transparency, and to make informed choice.”
This issue is not unique to Africa. China’s abusive practices are seen in Latin America and even in Europe. China financed a highway in Montenegro that the country will not be able to pay for, as the cost is more than 100% of its GDP. Helping Montenegro, explains Stefan Vladisavljev, coordinator of the think-tank Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence, “is the easy way in to establishing a sphere of influence into the immediate neighborhood of the European Union.”
Comparisons between China and the Soviet Union abound to the point of becoming redundant. The “cold war against the dragon” has been the subject of study of economists, civil servants, military officers, historians and political analysts. One thing, however, is certain: a world indebted to China is not the prosperous and free world that trade benefits; it is a world indebted to totalitarianism, barbarism and, ultimately, death.