The Gazelle

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Is China’s Design for Africa ‘Indentured Capitalism’?

After pledging an impressive $60 billion economic package that essentially triples China’s commitment in Africa, Xi Jinping’s address in Johannesburg last week was quickly praised as a win-win by his African counterparts at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). South Africa’s Jacob Zuma said the deal reflects a “fraternal community with a shared and prosperous future.” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta affirmed his faith in China’s dedication to Africa’s development and, along with Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, tried to dismiss suggestions that China acts only in self-interest.

Their confidence stands in stark contrast to the unvarnished assertion that China is literally buying Africa, the familiar mantra of recent years now renewed by those who see more ominous long-term consequences to China’s loans and land investments. Among these is Beijing’s announcement that it would build its first military installation in the strategic East African country of Djibouti, a development that amounts to nothing less than a seismic shift in China’s longstanding foreign policy of “peaceful rise” that prioritizes trade and political nonintervention.

The announcement comes on the back of China’s growing assertiveness in Africa. Troops in South Sudan and Mali have assisted with ongoing conflict stabilization operations, while the Chinese military supports humanitarian relief in Liberia and conducts anti-piracy efforts in Somalia.

When Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit African Union headquarters this summer, Obama delivered his remarks in the new $200 million AU facility in Addis Ababa.

Paid for entirely by the Chinese, the AU site also was designed by Chinese architects and engineers, with China’s Ministry of Commerce serving as project manager and the China State Construction Engineering Corporation as its main contractor.

What the shiny AU headquarters in Ethiopia and the new naval base in Djibouti have in common is China’s flashy commitments to projecting both its economic interests and its strategic position as a global power. However, for African stakeholders and those in the wider international community, the semantics of what that actually means leaves unanswered difficult questions about Chinese influence.

Immoral alliances

For Djibouti, with its extreme poverty and widespread human rights abuses, only access and money matter. Seizing on the US’ desire to expand its Camp Lemonnier military base, President Ismail Omar Guelleh negotiated in 2014 a new 10-year lease and upped the rent from $30 million to $63 million. For its part, China is expected to pay $100 million for theirs, but the history of Guelleh’s government suggests that any expanded Chinese presence will benefit the ruling elite without leading to great improvements in the lives of Djibouti’s impoverished citizens. Despite the windfall of cash (almost 30% of the country’s budget comes from such rents) that resulted in a doubling of the country’s GDP, living standards stagnated and in some cases, worsened. At the same time, Guelleh announced he would be seeking a fourth presidential term, despite earlier assurances he would step down in 2016 after 17 years in power.

While Xi was keen to reiterate his commitment to non-intervention in the affairs of its partners, striking however high-profile deals with countries such as Djibouti is, in itself, an intervention in their affairs. It enables a certain power structure and empowers the antics of a certain power elite while stifling the possibility of other actors to emerge to the fore. This commitment might make deals with China less complicated than those with Western nations and the ideological goals and expectations they attach – but that there are no strings is an illusion.

Within the context of FOCAC, a summit that reflects both the highest level of economic investment and diplomatic engagement ever achieved between China and the 50 participating African nations, Djibouti’s story is both a new development and a manifestation of an old one. It is perhaps in microcosm, the story of China’s rise in Africa and the criticisms that accompany its influence.

Chinese investment and African self-determination

China’s unrelenting demand for resources leads to arguments that, with some legitimacy, define China as an imperialist power investing only in what it can extract on the backs of cheap labor. China has become the African continent’s largest trade partner, but with little return for Africans other than exported goods returned from their own mines and ports. The “China’s Second Continent” model of expansion sees China’s investment through the lens of colonialism rather than that of equal partners, with Africa as the home to more than two million Chinese workers sharing agricultural land and job opportunities.

That China needs to secure its $200 billion African markets defines “strategic” quite clearly, particularly in light of China’s vision for an all encompassing New Silk Road to facilitate trade – and the political and sociocultural influence that have always come with it. That Djibouti may be just the beginning of China’s military expression of power is plausible, although Beijing denied any such plans.

African heads of state rightly value Chinese investment, and their own right to secure it, but they need to read the fine print. The scarred landscape of environmental and economic harm already caused by China’s rush to claim African assets is painfully familiar to Africans who live the legacy of the historical colonialism that preceded China, and were indentured by those deals. Africa’s future depends on true empowerment and cooperation, and that takes more than a nod, wink and a few “win-win” platitudes.