Guest Blog: Is China Playing Politics With COVID-19 Aid in Africa?

23 March 2021


China’s influence in Africa continues to grow – quickly. It is now the largest trading partner for the entire continent, providing billions of dollars of loans annually for railways, roads, ports, oil, gas fields and power plants. It has also emerged as a key ally in Africa’s fight against COVID-19, moving swiftly last year to supply test kits, protective equipment and teams of medical personnel, with plans underway to build China-Africa Friendship Hospitals and a vaccine distribution pipeline. For many African leaders, such assistance is embraced as an indispensable pathway to development. Help from China is welcomed. Even if they know that Beijing is not motivated by philanthropy.

For those of us working in the international development sector, we aren’t quite sure how to respond. We scratch our heads, knowing that investment and modern infrastructure are required for growth – enhanced connectivity is good news; so too is the opportunity to partner with alternative donors, beyond traditional US and Western lenders. But we worry about China’s intentions, its apathy towards oppressive rulers, the exploitation of natural resources, the potential for debt spirals, flooding local markets with Chinese manufactured goods, and employment of Chinese labour instead of creating local jobs.


The Biggest Prize

China, unsurprisingly, rejects any accusation of being a predatory lender. “To help Africa achieve sustainable development is what matters in the long run”, said President Xi Jinping at last year’s Summit on Solidarity Against COVID-19. “We must stay committed to enhancing China-Africa cooperation… to boost Africa’s development and revitalisation… to consolidate our friendship and mutual trust.” Such amity may or may not be genuine. But even the most pro-Jingping commentator would admit: the allocation of aid and investment is not determined by the recipient’s needs; it is primarily shaped by the donor’s interests – in this case, the acquisition of raw materials and new avenues for market expansion (i.e. minerals and money). And perhaps the biggest prize of all: political capital.

China’s geopolitical ambition is no secret. It was only a few years ago, in a speech before the 19th Communist Party Congress, that Xi Jinping shared his vision for a “new era of great-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” that would knock the United States off its perch and see “China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind.” This is the real ‘great game’: political influence at the very top. Yet achieving such an ambition is never guaranteed, even as China’s star continues to rise. The President and his aides must continually find ways to bolster the country’s image as a responsible global power – proficient at resolving developmental challenges. They should secure senior roles within international organisations and, linked to this, find new allies within the UN – where Africa accounts for more than a quarter of its members.


‘No-String Investments’

It is with this in mind that China seeks to position itself as a champion of developing states. As Xi Jinping said during his 2015 UN General Assembly speech: “[Our] vote at the United Nations will always belong to developing countries.” He later said: “[We will support] the efforts of other developing countries to increase their representation and strengthen their voice in international affairs.” Comments like these will always turn the head of potential allies in Africa, especially when China appears so willing to invest in sorely-needed infrastructure projects and ‘connectivity’ more generally – apparently with “no political strings attached”. (Unlike European and American lenders, Chinese finance does not impose political reform conditions. This appeals to those who might otherwise struggle with reducing corruption or increasing accountability.) Make no mistake, however, there is a very clear expectation that these so-called no-string investments will produce political dividends for Beijing.


Playing Politics

Studies are starting to show that African states which support China’s foreign policy positions in the UN General Assembly receive more Chinese development assistance. Studies also show that China provides more official financing to states that do not recognise Taiwan (the Government sees Taiwan as a breakaway province that belongs to China). Others fear punitive action and face threats of being ‘shut out’ from the Chinese market or being subject to a ‘diplomatic freeze’.

In a recent Human Rights Watch report, The Costs of International Advocacy, several diplomats provided evidence of Chinese officials using access to its domestic market and capital, but also its development assistance, to shield itself from criticism. According to a diplomat from Europe: “There are African countries who are heavily dependent on Chinese assistance, and who would not dare to say one word of criticism against China. There the colleagues are under strict instructions from their African capitals.” Another diplomat told Human Rights Watch: “There are African countries, for example, where Chinese influence is quite big. Sometimes you just don’t want to upset an important partner.” An African diplomat corroborated this analysis: “The PRC might say that [not shielding China from human rights attention] will damage the relationship. The PRC ambassador might even approach the president in country to complain.… They might threaten to withdraw aid.”


Savvy Diplomacy

Such insights may only be anecdotal. But they are indicative of China’s growing diplomatic clout. During the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council, China rallied 53 countries to back its infamous Hong Kong national security law. Many signatories came from Africa, including Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Comoros, Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Mauritania, Morocco, Mozambique, Niger, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe. A competing declaration condemning China’s action was supported by only 23 governments of democratic and developed countries.

Similarly, in July 2019, following claims of atrocities committed by China against ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, a bloc of 37 countries issued a rebuttal to defend China’s policies and to support the state’s “vocation education and training centres” for Uighurs. Signatories included Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, Comoros, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Gabon, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Several Western countries have since responded by imposing sanctions on Xinjiang officials – to which China responded with its own sanctions on Western officials.

Whether or not Chinese investment represents long-term opportunities or challenges for Africa, China will continue to lobby potential allies on issues that it deems important. Either through timely financial contributions, deft coalition building or savvy diplomacy, it will seek to mobilise support among African states in ways that serve its political interests. If the trend continues unabated, the UN will become even more hamstrung in its demand for accountability. Calls for transparency will go unheard. More and more, Beijing will shield itself from international scrutiny.


By Sam Mason 

Sam works in the House of Lords, advising on human rights and international development


Although all blog posts are reviewed by an editorial team, our blog authors all write in a personal capacity and the views expressed are not necessarily those of HART.


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