China-Africa: The Marriage of Reason

By Olivier Marbot
Posted on Thursday, 10 February 2022 10:33

Senegal’s national wrestling arena in Dakar, financed by Beijing. © Li Yan/Xinhua via AFP

For 20 years, China and Africa have maintained close ties. This relationship has continued to last, despite being unbalanced.

“Although the tradition may be a little outdated, it still has its followers. When a couple reaches its 20th wedding anniversary, it is customary to say that it is celebrating its ‘porcelain anniversary.’”

During the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Focac), which was held at the end of November 2021 in Dakar, several officials observed that the first edition of this forum dates back to 2001.

China and the continent are celebrating 20 years of close partnership and, as some Beijing representatives pointed out, porcelain has been a Chinese speciality since ancient times. The metaphor does have its limits – porcelain is beautiful and precious, but it is also fragile… – so the partners tried not to go overboard with it. Nevertheless, this 20th anniversary is important. It demonstrates, at the very least, the durability of a relationship whose contours the Chinese and Africans now want to reshape.

A desire to do better

Things will never be presented this way, but when talking with the Forum’s participants – whether African or Chinese – the impression is that both partners want to do better and improve their working relationship. For two decades, the Chinese presence in Africa has been synonymous with construction sites and major works, massive financial aid and XXL loans. This demonstration of strength coupled with a perfectly well-tested discourse – “China is the largest emerging country and Africa is the continent with the most emerging countries, so we are made to get along” -, is generally very well received on the continent.

Even though none of this is in question, the couple does seem to have reached an impasse and, after having in some way favoured quantity, is now willing to make an effort to improve their unbalanced relationship.

One-way flows and debt accumulation

It is true that China provides the continent with constant and indispensable aid. Aid that many other world powers are often content to simply promise, but not deliver. But the flows – of capital, goods, qualified personnel, etc. – still tend to only flow in an East-West direction, and more and more Africans are raising their voices to deplore this.

The other grievance is accumulating debt. China lends and lends again, and once again is thanked for it. But the sums advanced have to be repaid, and this is sometimes where things get complicated.

Beijing says it is aware of all this. It swears that it has never had any intention of getting its hands on the infrastructure of African states that are struggling to meet their repayments. China also acknowledges that it must make an effort to better understand and adapt to its partners’ cultures.

“The biggest of the small”

Will this promised change happen? The Chinese discourse continues to be well-received, and it is safe to say that as long as Beijing continues to present itself on the international stage as “the biggest of the small”, this romance will continue. Whether this stance is compatible with a desire to compete with the US for global leadership or, as it is sometimes stated, a wish to project its military power beyond its borders, is another matter.

For the time being, China retains its status on the continent. Which could be, to borrow a famous phrase, that of “the worst partner, except for all the others.” Which makes it, in the end, the best.

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