AS GLOBAL heads of state wrapped up at China’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing last month, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta attacked Beijing for not doing enough to reduce the growing trade deficit with Africa.
His statement hinted at fears that even as the continent reaps the benefits of Chinese investments, it runs the risk of becoming engulfed in a one-sided deal. Kenyatta also called on Beijing to open up the market for African companies, and move beyond the colonial pattern of exchanging manufactured goods for primary commodities.
Kenyatta is right to be worried: on trade of US$172 billion in 2015, the 54 countries that make up Africa registered a deficit of US$34 billion. Since commodity prices keep falling, that deficit only stands to widen in the coming years.
On one hand, the upsides of the relationship are obvious. In 2016, China became the single largest source of FDI in the continent, investing in 293 projects since 2005 with a total outlay of US$66.4 billion and creating at least 130,750 jobs. In the process, Chinese companies and state-run enterprises have overseen the construction of ports, roads, railways, dams, telecom networks, power stations and airports across the continent.
Yet as China’s trade surplus with Africa widens, voices calling for Beijing to open its market to African trade and to rebalance its relationship are becoming louder.
China has disproportionately profited from Africa’s resources in recent years, pouring billions of dollars into the continent to further its own business interests under the guise of “win-win cooperation.” At the ground level, African workers have taken issue with the surge in competition from Chinese workers and small-scale traders: earlier this year, hundreds of Ugandans took to the streets of the capital, challenging tax privileges that their government gives to their Chinese competitors.
China has also garnered a reputation for being a fair-weather partner in social justice circles.
For instance, Beijing showed deep reluctance to push the African agenda at the Africa Progress Panel and has distanced itself from major climate change initiatives in the continent. Chinese companies have also had a dismal corporate social responsibility (CSR) track record in Africa. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, for instance, Chinese companies turned tail and ran, exacerbating economic woes and leaving locals hanging during a time of crisis.
In 2015, Chinese mining company China Union pulled out of a 25-year concession agreement to mine iron ore in Bong Mines, Liberia, after a fall in the global price of the commodity. By the end of the year, China Union had laid off 302 workers.
In 2017, many of these workers are still demanding unpaid benefits and overtime payments from the company, which left only a skeleton staff on the ground after top officials fled during the Ebola outbreak. Adding insult to injury, the same China Union donated a paltry 12 preventative Ebola buckets and 10 bags of 25kg bags of rice for local residents during the outbreak, despite discussing otherwise with the clan chief of the lower Bong County.
China Union’s feeble response epitomised the Chinese government’s reaction to the Ebola crisis more widely. During the height of the crisis, Beijing sent a grand total of 174 medical personnel to Sierra Leone and increased the value of its assistance to US$37 million.
Meanwhile, in stark contrast with the Chinese, Africa’s traditional aid donors took the lead. The US sent at least 3,000 personnel and more than US$200 million in aid, with then-President Barack Obama lamenting global imbalances in assistance to the crisis. The UK contributed a US$550 million package of support, building six treatment centers in Sierra Leone and training over 4,000 healthcare workers in the country. France committed efforts worth US$126 million, establishing training centers throughout Guinea. Russia’s corporate sector joined the fray, with aluminum company RUSAL committing to and constructing an epidemic and microbiological research and treatment center in Guinea.
When taking into account the fact that China had roughly 20,000 citizens in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone at the time, and far more investments in those three countries than the US, the disparity is even greater than it initially appears.
In fairness, China was among the first outside partners that helped develop a vaccine during the crisis. Its involvement was welcome, especially since a study published in April by the US National Academy of Medicine has called into question the effectiveness of a vaccine produced by Merck in July 2015.
The Chinese Academy of Military Medical Sciences received approval for clinical trials of its own vaccine in December 2016, which will be produced by Tianjin CanSino Biotechnology sometime in 2018. Russia has announced that its own Ebola vaccines will be delivered to Guinea over the coming month.
Although China might have played a role in initial vaccine research efforts, the government still hasn’t contributed to global pandemic prevention and response systems. It failed to join the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and sparked controversy by blocking Taiwan’s efforts to participate in an annual WHO conference.
Furthermore, other attempts by Chinese firms to manufacture a vaccine have raised patent infringement concerns with the US and Canada, hurting chances of future multilateral cooperation.
While African governments remain eager for Chinese investment, if Beijing continues to take all it can get from the continent while ignoring its social responsibilities, even the most cash-strapped nations will grow weary of this dynamic.
If China really wants to exercise global leadership – as it seems increasingly eager to do as the US withdraws from the world stage – patterns of the past will need to change.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent