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Decoding China: Beijing wants more influence in Africa


China’s interest and influence continue to grow in countries across Africa. Beijing buys political support and access to raw materials with major infrastructure investments

For 34 years, the first foreign trip of the year has always taken the Chinese foreign minister to Africa. This week, Wang Yi visited Egypt, Tunisia, Togo and Ivory Coast before traveling on to South America. In addition to the crisis in the Middle East, his agenda included economic cooperation and civil society exchange.

Africa is playing an increasingly important role for China, which is hungry for energy and raw materials.

After World War II, communist China cultivated intensive cooperation with African countries. Beijing fraternized and positioned itself as a spokesperson for these underdeveloped countries, which later would become part of what is now called the “Global South.”

Since reform and opening up began in China 45 years ago, Africa has always been a reliable supplier of natural resources.

In return, China invests in infrastructure and social services such as education and healthcare.

In the 1970s, for example, China financed the 1,860-kilometre (1,100-mile) railroad line between the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam and Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia.

The Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA), also called the Uhuru Railway, runs through the most important copper mining region in Africa. China thus receives copper from Zambia via a rail network that it built itself. Numerous other infrastructure projects followed this pattern.

Win-win, but not without self-interest

China has different normative principles, said Philipp Gieg, an international relations expert at Germany’s University of Würzburg.

Gieg said China does not dictate what Africa should do, but that Chinese aid is based on Beijing’s motives. “It is openly stated as such. When China talks about ‘win-win,’ it means win for Africa, but also win for China,” Gieg told DW.

Shortly after Taiwan’s presidential elections, which the China-critical candidate William Lai Ching-te won, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang found political solidarity on his trip to Africa. Beijing considers Taiwan to be Chinese territory, which one day will be “reunited” with the mainland.

“Togo supports the reunification of China,” said Prime Minister Victoire Tomegah Dogbe. “There is only one China in the world. Taiwan is an integral part of China,” said Alassane Ouattara, president of Ivory Coast.

Beijing’s strategy for Taiwan includes isolating the self-ruled island on the international stage. For example, only 11 countries have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Creating dependence

Economic cooperation with Africa is being intensified as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)a keystone of Chinese foreign policy that provides loans for big infrastructure projects in developing countries.

A summit meeting between the Chinese and African leaders, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), is held every three years, most recently in Senegal in 2021.

In a video message at the time, Xi said that Sino-African relations were exemplary among the international community because “both sides have forged an indestructible fraternal friendship in the fight against imperialism and colonialism.”

The Chinese-African friendship today is based on reciprocity, said Marina Rudyak, a Sinologist at  the Institute for East Asian Studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

“African countries receive support from China in the form of investment, trade and development aid. And in return, China receives political support in correlations between financial flows and the voting behavior of African states in the United Nations when it comes to issues that are relevant to China,” she said.

According to a study by Germany’s Friedrich Naumann Foundation, China has constructed or refurbished over 15 parliament buildings in Africa. This has provided the opportunity for China to access cross-party legislative elites through long-term maintenance of these parliament buildings.

“China has emerged as a critical player in (re)shaping domestic political institutions in Africa. It is clear that China is also interested in building up political capital,” said Rudyak.

However, China rejects such criticism and accuses the West of imposing political conditionality on development aid such as good governance, the promotion of democracy and human rights.

“China believes that none of this is what Africa needs,” she added.

However, the African countries themselves do not see any competition between China and the West. China builds roads, and the West brings other goods, said Rudyak. And Africa takes what it needs.

Source: DW

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