On December 4 and 5, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he met with African leaders, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.
During the forum, President Xi announced that his government plans to provide over US$60 billion in loans and assistance to African countries and underlined that China wants to address issues holding back the continent’s development.
China is Africa’s most important economic partner. Sino-African trade reached US$220 billion in 2014, though volumes are estimated to have dropped by more than 15 per cent in the first nine months of 2015, due mainly to China’s slowing growth.
The Chinese population in Africa has risen in recent years to more than 1 million, with the largest groups in South Africa (350,000) and Angola (260,000).
President Xi also met with President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. The country wants to negotiate a US$12 billion loan from China for the construction of the 1,400 km coastal railway from Lagos in the west to Calabar in the east, creating 200,000 jobs.
At the forum President Xi reasserted China’s policy of political non-interference. While this makes for pleasant rhetoric, China’s growing economic and strategic interests in Africa will require interference. Keeping regimes in power, such as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s, comes close.
Africa is crucial for China as a supplier of raw materials, energy and agricultural products. Its Indian Ocean coast holds strategic importance for Beijing. The Chinese are building a naval base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, which controls access to the Red Sea and ultimately the Suez Canal.
Africa is also key to China’s long-term global political and naval strategy. Stronger political interference to protect its trade, infrastructure and investment interests is inevitable. It cannot be excluded that China could use its military to keep friendly regimes in place. It would justify these actions by saying that it was supporting stability.
Before arriving in South Africa, President Xi paid a courtesy visit to President Mugabe in Zimbabwe, a long-time ally with huge internal problems. The move was important for Mugabe’s standing at home. China’s support has kept him in power – it invested some US$600 million in Zimbabwe in 2013 alone.
South African President Jacob Zuma has repeatedly proved his obedience to China, for instance by prohibiting a visit from the Dalai Lhama to his country last year.
GIS has previously highlighted that China’s behaviour is similar to Europe’s – especially Britain’s – Africa strategy in the pre-colonial area of the early 19th century . Africa has to be careful not to lose control of its own destiny again.
This is in line with Europe’s interest in a prosperous Africa. But the danger remains that Europe could neglect its southern neighbour. The consequences could be disastrous for both Africa and Europe.
As I pointed out in a statement from December 11, 2015, Europe should make Africa a priority, it is in both continents’ interest to do so. Europe must be ready with an active Africa strategy, including economic, political and if required, military – such as the French interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic. Such a strategy would not preclude Chinese investment in Africa, and could in fact complement it.