China’s rapid economic interest in the African continent is quite possibly the most important trend in the Africa’s foreign relations since the end of the Cold War.  In 1990 Sino-African trade hit the $1 billion mark.  A decade later it jumped to $10 billion before increasing 15-fold to $150 billion in 2011.  China is now Africa’s number one trading partner.  Other newly industrialized countries like Turkey, India, and Brazil have also begun heavily investing in Africa, although none of them have made their presence as strongly or widely felt as China.

Between 2000 and 2011 China launched more than 1,700 projects in 50 of the continent’s 54 countries.  Among these projects are hydroelectric power plants, railways (construction and rehabilitation), roads, schools, and water and sanitation.  Angola, Nigeria, and Sudan top the list as the three states with the heaviest Chinese investment.

Projects in Angola started in 2002 as part of a general reconstruction effort after a 27-year civil war left the country’s infrastructure in ruins.  It began with relatively small projects on rail rehabilitation and power transmission infrastructure, but has since grown to include roads, telecommunication, water, health, education, and fisheries.

Image courtesy of GovernmentZA, © 2013.  Some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of GovernmentZA, © 2013. Some rights reserved.

Meanwhile in Nigeria, the National Rural Telephony Project (NRPT) has begun actively working to provide advanced fixed and wireless services with the help of China’s two biggest telecom corporations, ZTE and Huawei.  As of 2013 Nigeria had a total of 114 million active cell phone users (almost 70% of the population), the highest in all of Africa.

The electrification level in the Sudan is incredibly low, even by sub-Saharan standards.  Hence, the majority of Chinese investment occurs in the energy sector.  2009 saw the completion of the 1,250 Megawatt, $1.2 billion Merowe dam.  The project was, at the time, the largest international project China had ever took part in (now surpassed by the Mambilla hydropower project in Nigeria expected to be completed in 2018).  Other energy projects include the mining of Sudan’s vast oil fields and the construction of a network of oil pipelines.

African leaders insist that negotiations with China take place on a level playing field, with the ability to set the agenda as they see appropriate for their country.  “As far as we are concerned, it is a win-win situation,” said Tedros Adhanom, Ethiopia’s foreign minister in an interview with Al-Jazeera, “they come to business and we negotiate. We make sure that the trade and investment is based on our priorities.”

Other state leaders are a bit more skeptical of the overwhelming Chinese economic presence in Africa.  Lamido Sanusi, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, says there has been a “whiff of colonialism” in the air ever since China’s activities first began in 2000.

In their aggressive attempt to secure Africa’s vast natural resources, China funds these projects with “no strings attached,” such as transparency requirements, anti-corruption measures, and environmental protection protocol.  This is one of the reasons Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and other regional autocrats hold the Chinese in such high regard.  Cooperating with the Chinese has enabled these strongmen to enrich themselves and hold on to their power, even if it means oppressing and taking advantage of their people.

China found itself in the middle of a controversy in late 2011.  After South Sudan’s vote for independence in December of that year, the country descended into brutal ethnic conflict that tried the patience of the United States and other Western donors and investors.  Not surprisingly however, when the West put a halt on their financing, China maintained its credit line to the unstable East African state.  In the wake of criminal war and forced displacement in Darfur, Beijing continued to supply the Sudanese government with arms.  Additionally, China actively blocked resolutions in the United Nations Security Council in order to protect their main interest; a continuous flow of Sudanese oil.

Criticism of Chinese investment does not stop there.  Along with goods and services the Chinese have also brought along poor business practices.  There have been widespread reports of shoddy construction and buildings falling apart after only a few years.  In Luanda, the capital of Angola, a hospital was opened with much excitement, only to have cracks appear in the walls a few months later.  Within a year the entire hospital was shut down.

In the face of the immense corporate power of Chinese firms and the promise of revenue, many African governments have also allowed oil companies to drill in protected areas, causing significant harm to regional and local ecosystems.  Sinopec, a Chinese national oil corporation, has drilled in a Gabonese national park, while another state oil company has created lakes of spilled crude in the Sudan in an attempt to shortcut proper disposal.

The environment is not the only thing in jeopardy.  At Chinese-run mines in Zambia’s copper belt, safety regulations are often completely overlooked, with employees working without proper ventilation and safety helmets, leading to deadly accidents on a daily basis.  To avoid censure and bad publicity, Chinese managers bribe union bosses and intimidate plaintiffs to settle out of court.

China’s approach to Africa presents fundamental challenges to U.S. interests in good governance, promoting democracy, and sustainable development on the continent.  As mentioned earlier, the “no strings attached” funding provided by the Chinese includes no requirements regarding transparency, environmental protection, or anti-corruption measures, making it an easier alternative to the principled and disciplined assistance offered by the West.  This undermines Western efforts to address crucial institutional and systematic deficiencies present in modern African states.

China’s increased interest in Africa also has profound geopolitical implications for the global community.  Africa represents more than a quarter of UN member states and votes.  By fostering good relations with African nations through development and economic investment, China seeks to win their support and secure its status as a rising global power.

Furthermore, among the natural resources acquired by the Chinese are strategic metals (metals used for military purposes).  This is not to suggest that China is stockpiling these metals in anticipation of an armed conflict in the near future.  However, China has engaged in aggressive behavior with rare metals in the past, and it would be unwise for the global community not to be wary of China’s possible intentions.

Chinese projects have contributed significantly to the development of African economies and infrastructures, bringing tens of millions of people out of poverty through job creation, the introduction of new technology, and improved healthcare and education.  However, there is much needed change for China’s not-so-altruistic development approach in Africa.  A conscious effort must be made to keep Africa’s long-term goals in mind and as an increasingly important player on the global stage, it is crucial that the continent’s development is not curtailed by a myopic Chinese economic model.