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African alarm

China-Africa Research Initiative, China signed 1,141 loan commitments worth $153 billion with various African governments.

SNS | New Delhi |

Is China’s African outreach unravelling? The first signs are now visible that Beijing’s move to draw African countries into its supply chain as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) over the past decade is floundering. There has been a flurry of cancellations of major projects undertaken by China on the African continent, with governments citing the debt trap which comes along with the billions Beijing pumps in, quality and transparency issues around mega projects, and the hegemonic, “exploitative” approach of the Chinese.

It started with Ghana cancelling the contract of the Beijing Everyway Traffic and Lighting Tech Company to develop an intelligent traffic management system for the country. This was followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announcing a review of mining contracts signed with China stretching back to 2008. DRC President Felix Tshisekedi is reported to have said: “Those with whom out country signed contracts are getting richer while DRC people remain poor.” Chinese state-backed firms Sinohydro Corp and China Railway Group were to build roads, hospitals, and bridges in the DRC in return for a 68 per cent stake in the country’s Sicomines venture. The lack of transparency around the deal is said to have led the Congo to review China-led projects in the country, while Ghana cancelled the traffic management system project outright citing sub-standard work. Last year, a Kenyan High Court had ordered the cancellation of a $3.2 billion contract between Kenya and China for the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway terming the project “illegal”.

According to the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies’ China-Africa Research Initiative, China signed 1,141 loan commitments worth $153 billion with various African governments and state-owned enterprises between 2000 to 2019. The massive loans, as experts have been warning for a while, are becoming increasingly difficult for developing countries to service, leading them headlong into a debt trap.

The fact that most of the Chinese projects under the scanner in Africa are part of the BRI which aims to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime trade networks, has set alarm bells ringing in Beijing. But the Chinese policy establishment can take heart from the fact that neither the US-led West nor aspiring regional powers such as India have the will ~ or, indeed, a comprehensive plan ~ to fill the strategic gap these developments may create. For now, Beijing is hoping that its approach of reaching out to African governments informed ostensibly by humility but underpinned by implied threats will be enough to tide the crisis over. The calculation is that most of the countries pushing back are already in too deep for any substantive policy pivot away from China.