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China-Africa in 2020: Three Trends to Watch

Cobus van Staden
By Cobus van Staden
Senior China-Africa researcher, South African Institute of International Affairs

Cobus is the head of research and analysis at the China Africa Project (www.chinaafricaproject.com), an independent non-partisan media platform dedicated to exploring every facet of China's engagement in Africa where he also co-hosts the weekly China in Africa Podcast and edits the China Africa Project's daily email newsletter.

Posted on Tuesday, 7 January 2020 12:27

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa right, and Senegalese President Macky Sall, left, attend the Beijing Summit Of The Forum On China-Africa Cooperation - Joint Press Conference at the Great Hall of the People Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018 in Beijing, China. (Lintao Zhang/Pool Photo via AP)

'Twitter Diplomacy', Debt and Sustainable energy will shape China - Africa relations in the year ahead.

[This is the seventh in our series on what to watch in 2020. Click on the links to catch up with: our first on Africa’s 2020 elections, the second on higher shipping costs, the third on how demographics is leaving Africa short of capital, the fourth on how the shine is coming off diamonds for De Beers, the fifth on Eskom’s woes and the outlook for South African miners, and the sixth on consolidation prospects in Kenya’s banks.]

“Twitplomacy”

The last year has seen Beijing experiment with new approaches to public diplomacy.

Gone are the staid interviews with CCTV: now Chinese diplomats in Africa have their own Twitter accounts.

This rapid uptake meant that by late 2019, Chinese ambassadors were having fights with African ministers on social media.

Some of these were related to African issues, for example, the spat that erupted when the Zimbabwean government misstated the amount of financing received from the Chinese government.

But Chinese officials like Lin Songtian, the ambassador to South Africa, also used social media to take shots at US policy on Hong Kong. Up to now the US embassy in South Africa hasn’t responded to these attacks, but in 2020 western embassies in Africa will have to decide how best to deal with the new online prominence of Chinese spokespeople.

Social media is only one of the public diplomacy approaches being road-tested in Africa.

Initiatives like the 10,000 Villages Project, a satellite TV rollout to poor communities in East, West and Southern Africa, show how Chinese private corporations (in this case the satellite TV provider StarTimes) are increasingly being pulled into boosting Beijing’s soft power in areas like Africa.

It seems like these initiatives will only increase in 2020 and beyond, as Chinese diplomats become more used to communicating directly with foreign publics. The question is how African governments and foreign embassies will respond.

This could make for an interesting 2020 online.

Debt

Debt has been a perennial issue in China-Africa relations, one that ratcheted up to a boiling point from 2019, as Western countries became more critical about the impact of Chinese lending on African debt sustainability.

There are concrete reasons for concern: African debt has risen rapidly and a sizeable proportion is Chinese. However, the dominant narrative around Chinese debt became a highly misleading story of China purposefully indebting poor countries to gain leverage over state assets as part of a ‘debt trap.’

This narrative has proven resilient despite public refutations from scholars. The result has been a lack of good faith in the global discussion of African debt.

This took the form of a refusal to acknowledge how mixed new African debt is, and how it frequently includes much western lending.

Kenya Railways attendants next to a train along the SGR line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and financed by Chinese government in Ongata Rongai, Kenya. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

It also didn’t acknowledge the long-term costs for African countries of not investing in large-scale infrastructure when they are on a demographic knife-edge between development and chaos, and how cumbersome much lending from partners like the World Bank is.

The five year grace period for the $3.6 billion dollar Chinese loan for Kenya to build the Nairobi to Mombasa line of the Standard Gauge Railway expired on December 31, 2019. The Kenyan Treasury will now start to make regular payments to pay off its debts.

This breakdown in communications led to pushback from African leaders, including publicly at a meeting with high-ranking officials from the IMF. As African leaders become more insistent about the need to lend, China is becoming more risk-averse.

Some of this year’s high-profile refusals to fund projects in Africa arguably come from a fear that China might be over-exposed to African risk.

One result of this concern is the development of the so-called China-Africa Swap deal, designed to reconfigure traditional resource-backed loans to draw in more private-sector money and to spread the risk, to avoid African governments shouldering the entire load.

The success of failure of these deals, and the ongoing tensions around debt, will keep playing out over 2020.

Sustainable Energy

Africa is desperate for dependable sources of electricity.

It is also pushing a lot of money into this sector. A recent report by the Infrastructure Consortium of Africa showed that 43% of investment into African infrastructure is going into electricity.

This is music to Chinese ears, especially the state-owned corporations that are increasingly barred from building the coal-powered plants they have become experts at.

This problem came to a head in Kenya this year, when a proposed Chinese-funded coal-fueled power plant project was successfully defeated by a group of NGOs and local communities.

There is a strong bias towards conventional power generation in coal countries like South Africa, and a strong incentive among Chinese companies heavily invested in this outdated tech to take it for a last go-round along the belt and road.

The court case in Kenya centered around a specific set of bad optics (a highly polluting plant would have been built near the picturesque settlement of Lamu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site) which gave it international press momentum, but it also revealed the power of local communities to stand up to powerful transnational forces.

Aerial photo taken on Dec. 13, 2019 shows the 50 MW solar power farm in Garissa, Kenya. The plant, designed and built by China Jiangxi Corporation for International Economic and Technical Co-operation, in conjunction with Kenya’s Rural Energy Authority (REA), is one of the largest photovoltaic electricity facilities in Africa. (Xinhua/Xie Han)

As the real extent of climate change is felt during the coming decade, Africa’s energy choices will become much more pressing for the continent and the world.

China is a world leader both in polluting and sustainable power generation. 2020 will start revealing which direction China and African governments will choose, and how African populations will react.

Meanwhile, a key investor in the Lamu project insists the project might still go ahead, so 2020 could already the first skirmishes in what will no doubt become a longer war.

 

This article first appeared on The China Africa Project.

 

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