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It is a measure of its rise to prominence that China is the prism through which other nations now define their relations with Africa. This is the product of decades of energetic diplomacy and China’s willingness to provide unprecedented levels of finance, infrastructure development, contracting and small business engagement (AE 370/19). This dominant position was richly underlined by the 3-4 September Forum on China-Africa Co-operation, which drew African leaders to Beijing in numbers the continent’s other commercial partners can only dream of. Statement after statement spoke of huge new (and not so new) agreements; Nigeria alone said it had signed 13 deals worth $10bn during the summit, with another dozen to be signed later.

Few leaders emerged from their meeting with the apparently tireless President Xi Jinping without a contract – although some, like Republic of Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has deep problems over existing Chinese pre-export finance contracts, found accessing new funds harder than they would like. To give just a flavour: China National Petroleum Corporation committed to finance and build Nigeria’s estimated $2.8bn Ajaokuta-Kaduna-Kano gas pipeline, while Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba discussed developing the 84MW Chutes de l’Impératrice hydro plant with China Gezhouba Group Corporation, which is also talking positively about its 3,050MW Mambilla hydropower scheme in Nigeria.

Numbers remain inexact, but according to data compiled by African Energy’s parent Cross-border Information for the Abidjan-based Infrastructure Consortium for Africa, official Chinese commitments to energy, water, transport and ICT projects on the continent totalled $19.4bn in 2017 ($9bn for energy). In 2016, it was $6.4bn ($4.6bn) and in 2015 $20.2bn ($10bn). Commitments of around $30bn were recorded in 2012-14, and in all cases numbers were probably higher still.

China is not the only game in town, but its dominant position is often painfully apparent, as during UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s August visit to South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria, when she sought to convince the continent – and her electorate – that post-Brexit Britain could emerge as a commercial partner second only to China. It was widely noted this was the first visit to Africa by a British PM since David Cameroon dropped into Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2015; President Uhuru Kenyatta observed that no UK premier had visited Kenya since Margaret Thatcher in January 1988. The UK can undoubtedly mobilise substantial financing: during May’s tour, CDC Group committed to provide up to £3.5bn ($4.5bn) investment to African businesses in 2018-21, up from around £2bn now. But Chinese numbers will remain much bigger – a recognition shared by thoughtful officials in Washington, Paris and other G7 capitals.

The EU’s big African ambitions were reiterated in European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s 12 September State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The EU was keen “to build a new partnership with Africa… proposing a new alliance… for investment and sustainable jobs”, he said. This would underwrite efforts to curb illegal migration to Europe and cope with the social fallout of Africa’s huge population growth. Juncker said Africa was a key element in a more assertive European foreign policy, which “would create up to 10m jobs in Africa in five years”, via a still-to-be-created “framework that brings new investment”.

China has spent years putting such frameworks in place. There are reasons for concern: about potential ‘hidden’ and unmanageable Chinese debt (AE 374/19), and problematic resources-for-infrastructure deals – discussed in Beijing by presidents including Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Ghana’s Nana Akufo-Addo. For all the talk of non-interference in domestic affairs (which many governments adore), the shifting geopolitical balance suggests stormy times ahead for a more assertive China, whose military base in Djibouti has set a precedent as its huge navy establishes an ever wider footprint. But that is what happens when new superpowers emerge and older powers come to realise their influence has waned.