from Africa in Transition , Africa Program , and U.S. Interests in Africa

Despite New China-Africa Tension, Beijing Has a Pivotal Role to Play in Africa's COVID-19 Recovery

Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, meets with Zhou Pingjian, the Chinese ambassador to Nigeria, to discuss the mistreatment of Africans in China, on April 20, Abuja, Nigeria. Femi Gbajamiamila/Twitter

April 15, 2020

Femi Gbajabiamila, speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, meets with Zhou Pingjian, the Chinese ambassador to Nigeria, to discuss the mistreatment of Africans in China, on April 20, Abuja, Nigeria. Femi Gbajamiamila/Twitter
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Stephen Paduano is the executive director of the LSE Economic Diplomacy Commission and a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics, where he studies African political economy with an emphasis on U.S. and Chinese policy.

The reports that have surfaced in recent days in Guangzhou, a city in southern China and the site of a diplomatic crisis with Africa, are undeniably grim. Videos and images show young African men being dragged in handcuffs by Chinese authorities, pinned face-first in the pavement, shepherded by riot police down an empty street, and made to sleep outside after apparently being evicted. In one short week, the city’s startling and unabated racism has lit up capitals across the African continent.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

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As the news has spread, the anger has grown, and it would now appear that the China-Africa relationship is entering an uncertain chapter. In some respects, good may come of it. A sober reassessment of this relationship by African officials, stripped of the “win-win” rhetoric Beijing often touts, will be necessary for African states to achieve better partnerships on more even footing. However, there is still serious reason to worry. With the livelihoods of Africans abroad under siege, the situation at home is little better, requiring ambitious multilateral assistance. A deterioration of Africa’s relationship with its largest trading partner and official creditor will serve no one’s interests—neither those of the Africans, nor those of the Chinese, nor indeed those of the Washington officials who may be pushing for such a rupture.

Although there have been flare-ups in the China-Africa relationship in the past—the periodic anti-China riot in Zambia, the sporadic attack on Chinese workers in Angola—this crisis is unprecedented with its continental scope and high-level rebukes. In recent days, leading political figures, including the chairman of the African Union, have put out statements and released videos questioning and criticizing their Chinese counterparts. In one, Nigerian Speaker of the House Femi Gbajabiamila instructs the Chinese ambassador to watch the clips from Guangzhou as he says, “We will not allow Nigerians to be maltreated in other countries.” In a similar spirit across the continent, Kenya’s Daily Nation ran the headline, “Kenyans in China: Rescue Us From Hell.”

Undeniable though the reports are, Chinese officials have thus far been intent on denying them. China Global Television Network, a state-backed media organization, dismissed the story as “fake news.” Its embassy in Harare concurred, making a counter-accusation about Zimbabwe’s mistreatment of Chinese migrants and adding a claim that all this is just a U.S. attempt to “sow discord.” Back in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian dismissed the concerns outright. “We treat all foreigners in China equally and we reject discrimination,” he told reporters.

In the past, African officials have often been reluctant to criticize their opposite numbers in Beijing on any issue—keeping mum on Hong Kong and Xinjiang, toeing the line on Taiwan, and showing support over U.S. objections throughout the trade war. In exchange, China has provided not only consumer demand, access to capital, and a blind eye towards misdeeds, but also an ear and an amplifier for grievances with the West. However, the scale of the outrage in African media and the Chinese refusal to brook further criticism around coronavirus have entrenched both sides. Now their delicate balance, the “all-weather friendship” in Communist Party parlance, appears to be coming to naught.

To make matters more fraught, U.S. officials have swooped in to add criticism. Its top diplomat to Africa, Tibor Nagy, called the Guangzhou reports “appalling,” as a State Department official said the episode was “a sad reminder of how hollow the PRC-Africa relationship really is.” In Washington, in truth, these events are likely to be a welcome development in the long-desired decoupling of China and Africa. Since former National Security Advisor John Bolton declared a return to “great power competition” on the continent in 2018—singling out the “disturbing effects of China’s quest to obtain more political, economic, and military power”—administration officials have opportunistically chided Chinese activity in Africa and looked to drive a wedge.

More on:

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Sub-Saharan Africa

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U.S. Foreign Policy

But beyond expressing legitimate concerns about the treatment of Africans in Guangzhou, U.S. officials would be wrong to add fuel to this fire. Africa is not a theater for “great power competition,” despite what this administration may say, and at this moment international cooperation is in everyone’s interest. With the World Bank projecting that sub-Saharan economies will contract by 5.1 percent in 2020, marking the first continental recession in twenty-five years, multilateralism has become urgent.

Indeed, African officials continue to make clear that the international community must come together to help their countries weather this storm. Late last month, Africa’s finance ministers called for $100 billion to provide much needed healthcare funding, debt relief, and other fiscal support. The U.N.’s special adviser on Africa subsequently revised that number to $200 billion. Last week, as well, a group of prominent African figures added a call for a two-year standstill on debt repayments in order to ensure that states do not have to spend more on servicing their debt than they do on healthcare—as is currently, unfortunately the case in Angola, the Gambia, Ghana, Zambia, and elsewhere.

Multilateral coordination will be tricky but necessary, and China has a central role to play. Although there have been reassuring signs of seriousness from western institutions—the G20 is reportedly moving forward with the proposed debt moratorium, the World Bank has announced it will deploy $160 billion globally, and the IMF has put together $500 million for grant-based debt service relief—these efforts fall far short of what is needed. After all, the G20 would only suspend those nations’ official debt, much of the World Bank’s funds will be allocated beyond Africa, and the IMF initiative only relates to twenty-five designated countries (six of which aren’t African).

For Africa, the missing link, undoubtedly, is China. As Africa’s largest creditor, with a history of “hidden lending” and employing interest rates nearly double those of development banks, it is clear that any recovery effort requires China’s multilateral engagement. Without it, well-intentioned relief runs the risk of doing little more than bailing out Chinese creditors, who in turn may be further encouraged to engage in unsustainable lending practices (as was the concern after the HIPC debt relief initiative of the early 2000s). However, the Chinese have been wary to step forward into this new and uncertain role as a globally responsible, development-oriented stakeholder. Their engagement thus far has been limited to an unspecified donation to the IMF’s relief fund and the personal donations of Chinese billionaire Jack Ma. With Washington more used to criticizing China than working with it, it is understandable why larger-scale Chinese leadership has been slow to come. The Guangzhou episode and Washington’s subsequent saber rattling have not made the U.S. task of constructive engagement any easier.

In the weeks ahead, there will be no job more important than bringing China to the table on African aid and multilateral debt relief. In order to do so, the U.S. and the West will have to swallow the pride of thinking they can go it alone. So too will they have to resist the temptation of chiding China away. But in turn, it is high time for China to right the wrongs of its fast-and-loose lending, give real meaning to its “all-weather friendship,” and become the global leader it claims and seeks to be.

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