China-Africa relations beyond waxing and waning of financial lending

The veritable pedigree of China-Africa relations incepted not on the principles of financial lending, but the principle of mutual respect, solidarity and rejection of global imperialism, colonialism and domination of all kinds against humanity. This was developed at the Bandung Conference where the legendary Chairman Mao made this clear that the developing countries of Africa and Asia have the same enemy which was colonial force and imperial subjugator. To free the dominated people of Asia and Africa there was the need for collaborative effort, cooperation and dedication to that cause.

It was immediately after the Bandung conference that the international cooperation discourses began to emanate which explain the mutual cooperation strategies that exist among nations and states. It provides the impetus upon which states can relate with each other on the basis of mutual benefit and mutual assistance. Stronger nations should assist the weaker ones in order to mutually achieve the desired objective of the cooperation and vice-versa. China has been a true friend and a partner, engaged in development cooperation with sister states in Africa and around the world. China builds infrastructure for development not giving cash to Africa, which ultimately mitigates the level of corrupt practices as the flow of cash has been reduced not to get into the hands of politicians who easily divert the cash. The centuries of relationship with the west have not been as good as the decades of relations with China. It is obvious that only China can competitively salvage the poor nations of Africa from the crisis of debt as it check-mates African leaders’ thirst for corruption and directly provide the desired infrastructure needed for development.

It is a well-known fact that states and nations need infrastructure to develop and where such trends experience deficit then the need for lending or borrowing arises. China and Africa engage in mutually beneficial relationship and win-win cooperation and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation is one major multilateral area of coupling China and Africa. The Dakar summit for example did not mention of financial lending to African states, but areas of meaningful collaboration and cooperation. China could intervene positively to boost African capacity in such areas. Such areas as identified by President Xi Jinping are areas of: medical and health promotion, poverty alleviation and agriculture, trade promotion, investment promotion, digital economy, green development, capacity building, cultural and people’s exchanges, peace and security. China is a global leader with influence in variegated areas of international concern. It plays salient role in areas that affect humanity such as peace and security, poverty reduction, global governance, economic development, education, health and agriculture among many other areas. The most recent is China’s contribution to aggressively fighting the COVID-19 pandemic which ravaged human lives across the world. China’s aid transcends the boundaries of Africa, but emphasis is given to developing nations. It is in line with the above that President Xi Jinping itemized the position of China and commitment towards fighting the pandemic as follows:

i. President Xi Jinping stressed that China is committed to building a global community of health for all, China is providing vaccines to the world, particularly fellow developing countries, and is actively advancing cooperation on vaccine production. This is in line with China’s commitment to making COVID-19 vaccines a global public good.

ii. China will continue to do its best to help other developing countries cope with the virus.

iii. In the course of this year, China will strive to provide 2 billion doses of vaccines to the world.

iv. China has decided to donate US$100 million to the COVAX Facility for distributing vaccines to developing countries.

v. We stand ready to work with the international community to advance international vaccine cooperation and build a community with a shared future for mankind.

Such efforts by China are not ignorable which closely, should overshadow media claims that “Chinese lending to Africa falls during first year of pandemic.” The first of this kind was written by Kate Barlett and published by Voice of America (VOA) on 27 April, 2022.Barlet derived some ideas from a study carried out by Boston University’s Global Development Policy Centre, which claimed that “Chinese loans to African governments plunged by more than three-quarters in the first year of the pandemic…” Arguing that, that could be due to Chinese lenders taking more precautions at the outset of the pandemic and focusing on domestic priorities, as well as African countries being less willing to borrow. The report further stated that “Chinese lending in 2020 fell to $1.9 billion, with only 11 new loan commitments recorded. That’s compared to the 32 loans signed in 2019 worth some $8.2 billion.

The waxing or waning of Chinese lending to Africa is not what institutions should focus on, but rather, the circumstances that surround the year 2020, which obviously was the COVID-19 pandemic. Going by the production possibility frontier, the world was busy fighting the pandemic, manufacturing activities had stalled, production decreased and companies and industries were busy producing items related to COVID-19 ease. Africa was not the worst hit, consequently, it was not looking for more borrowing to fight COVID-19. China on the other hand, was not lending Africa, but giving Africa aid packages through humanitarian gesture to fight the pandemic. What China could have lent Africa, Africa received it as an aid package that required no interest and no repayment. All Chinese companies contributed to this through the leadership of the Communist Party. It is in line with the above that President Xi Jinping posited:

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the development and people’s livelihood in all countries, especially developing countries. We should attach equal importance to joint pandemic response and economic recovery. We should step up anti-pandemic assistance to developing countries and realize fair and reasonable distribution of vaccines globally to help make them real global public goods. China is ready to enhance coordination with the UN to promote the implementation of the Global Development Initiative, address the development predicament in developing countries, help implement the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and work for a new stage of balanced, coordinated and inclusive global development.

What states and institutions should focus on is not China reducing lending to Africa in the years of the pandemic, but focus should be made on how does China contribute to aiding Africa to get out of the pandemic.Chinese government has made two specific commitments on debt relief. The first was the G-20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative for Poorest Countries reached by Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors on April 15. As part of this agreement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry officially recognized that G-20 countries, including China, would suspend both principal repayments and interest payments starting on May 1, 2020 until the end of 2020. The suspension is applicable to all IDA-eligible countries (76 countries) plus Angola, including 40 sub-Saharan African countries.

The second official pledge came one month later, from President Xi Jinping himself, at the virtual event opening the 73rd World Health Assembly on May 18. According to Xi, “China will provide $2 billion over two years to help with COVID-19 response and with the economic and social development in affected countries, especially developing countries.” President Xi Jinping also announced that China would provide an additional 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Africa, among which 600 million doses are donation and 400 million doses will be provided through such means as joint production by Chinese enterprises and relevant African countries.

With the COVID-19 LSG playing a coordinating role, China re-focused its CMT program on the pandemic. By early March, China’s National Health Commission had scaled up its CMTs in Africa to 46. In mid-March, the Jack Ma and Alibaba Foundations, two of China’s largest charities, worked with Africa CDC, Chinese embassies, Ethiopian Airlines, WHO, and United Nations (UN) agencies to distribute 100,000 masks, 20,000 test kits, and 1,000 protective suits to each of the 54 African countries. Each country received 500 ventilators, 200,000 pieces of protective clothing, one million swabs, and 500,000 pairs of gloves in April, and critical re-supplies afterwards.

Chinese government supplies were delivered by its state-owned companies particularly those in shipping, energy, and construction. China Railway Construction Corporation was by far the most prominent. In West Africa alone, 38 tons of Chinese aid was delivered between February and April. By the year’s end African countries received over 400 tons of Chinese assistance. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delivered COVID-19 aid to around 50 countries and territories, including 21 in Africa between March 2020 and June 2021, accounting for half of all Chinese contributions. About 62 percent went to national militaries and Defense Ministries. The PLA also held military-to-military exchanges via video conference to share experiences and provide in-country training for military medical units.

This suffices the explanatory need of knowing the position of China as it affects lending to Africa in the first year of the pandemic. China has been more humanitarian, more benevolent and truly a friend and a partner to Africa, as aid replaced lending that might come with interest and repayment but focused on what affects the world and provided a shield for developing nations especially Africa. China is sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest single creditor and, in the two decades since 2000, has signed 1,188 loans worth $160 billion with 49 African governments, state-owned enterprises and regional organizations. With this level of engagement and commitment to develop Africa, China will not withdraw from such commitment especially from the principle of development assistance, south-south cooperation and mutual benefit that defines China-Africa cooperation.

Professor Ibrahim writes from Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Abuja. He is director, Contemporary China-Africa Research.