From Ethiopia to Djibouti, Kenya to Egypt, the United States is sounding the alarm that the Chinese money flooding Africa comes with significant strings attached. The warnings carry distinct neo-colonial undertones: With Beijings astonishing investments in ports, roads and railways, the U.S. says, come dependency, exploitation and intrusion on nations basic sovereignty.
“We are not in any way attempting to keep Chinese investment dollars out of Africa. They are badly needed,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this week in the Ethiopian capital. “However, we think its important that African countries carefully consider the terms.”
Those terms lead to deals in which Chinese workers, not Africans, get the construction jobs, Tillerson and other U.S. officials warn. They say Chinese firms, unlike American ones, dont abide by anti-bribery laws, fueling Africas pervasive problems with corruption. And if countries run into financial trouble, they often lose control over their own infrastructure by defaulting to a lender that historically has not always been forgiving.
Some African countries now owe sums of up to 200 per cent of their annual economic output, the U.S. has said, with most debt owed to China.
There are obvious reasons why the United States would want to cast itself and its companies as a more favourable alternative to China, the geopolitical rival and economic competitor whose influence is also on the rise in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East.
Tillerson cancels Saturday events on African trip over illness
But theres a problem, African politicians and economists say: China, unlike the United States, is showing up on the continent with a generous checkbook in hand. Given the unpredictability involved in investing in poorer countries, China is often the only one willing to take the risk.
And African nations realize that Chinas investments dont come with the same nagging about human rights and good governance that often accompanies U.S. assistance.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, walks with Kenyas President Uhuru Kenyatta, left, inside State House in Nairobi, Kenya on Friday
“Theyre ready to basically do business,” said Brahima Coulibaly, a former Federal Reserve economist and Africa scholar at the Brookings Institution. “Theyre ready to partner with any country that is also willing to partner with them in a way that it makes sense to them and furthers their agenda.”
Goldstein said some events may be rescheduled, including a planned stop at the site of the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.
China vehemently disputes that its enterprises in Africa or elsewhere are exploitive, arguing instead that its generosity illustrates its commitment to the rest of the worlds economic and social development.
“No one dominates, and all parties participate on an equal footing,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in his annual news conference Thursday. “There is no secret operation, but an open and transparent operation — no winner-take-all, but all see mutual benefits and win-win results.”
The eye-popping investments through Chinas “One Belt, One Road” initiative, believed to run into the trillions of dollars, form just one part of the Asian powers bid to promote a new global system that puts Beijing at the center. Equally alarming to the U.S. are Chinas military designs.
In Djibouti, where Tillerson visited Friday, China has built its first overseas base along the key shipping route that links Europe and Asia. Its “string of pearls” plan calls for building a network of ports stretching from China to the Persian Gulf. Beijing has also been busy building artificial islands and then taking steps toward militarizing them in a bid to expand its control over waters far from its coast.
Tillerson arrived in Kenya on Friday afternoon for the third stop on his five-country tour of Africa. He had started his day Friday in Ethiopia with the North Korea announcement and flew to Djibouti for a brief visit before continuing on to Nairobi.
Chinas new base in Djibouti, another country immensely indebted to Beijing, is just miles away from the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. Though its Chinas only African base so far, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command, predicted this week that “there will be more.”
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looks on during a press conference on March 9, 2018 in Nairobi, following his arrival to Kenya from Ethiopia, on his four-nation tour of Africa.
“We are not naive to think that some of the activities the Chinese are doing in terms of counterintelligence there — they are taking place,” Waldhauser told the House Armed Services Committee. “But it just means that we have to be cautious, we have to be on guard.”
For better or worse, U.S. suspicions about Chinas ambitions are playing out far beyond the confines of Africa. Chinese companies are building or financing power plants in Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan, managing a port in Greece and launching railway projects in Thailand and Tajikistan, with aggressive plans to continue its expansion into Latin America.
In Sri Lanka, the former president suffered a surprise election defeat in 2015 after his opponent criticized him for running up some $5 billion in debt to China to fund construction. In December, Sri Lankas government sold an 80 per cent stake in the port in Hambantota to a Chinese state-owned company after falling behind in repaying $1.5 billion borrowed to build it.
In Africa, some of the China-funded roads have started to crumble, the U.S. has said, due to shoddy construction. And in January, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that China planted listening devices in the $200 million headquarters it built for the African Union in 2012. China denies that claim.
Increasingly friendly (Reuters/Jason Lee) Share Written by Abdi Latif Dahir Obsession China in Africa March 10, 2018 Quartz africa On the days before and after US secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked on his first official trip to Africa, one issue has risen as the main concern among American officials: China’s ascendant role in the African continent.
Testifying in front of the US armed services committee on Mar. 6, the top US general for Africa Thomas Waldhauser said they were “carefully monitoring Chinese encroachment and emergent military presence” in Djibouti. The Horn of Africa nation is home to the only permanent US military installation in Africa. But last year, China opened its first overseas naval base there too, provided loans to the country, and built a railway connecting its seas to the Ethiopian hinterland to improve regional trade.
But the recent US unease was linked to Djibouti terminating the contract of one the country’s biggest port operators, the Dubai-owned DP World. The company called the move an illegal seizure, prompting US officials to speculate if president Ismail Omar Guelleh could also kick them out at will in the future and if he could hand over the port to China. “If they did [give the port to China], down the way that restricts access, that restricts the [US] navy’s ability to get in there and offload supplies,” Waldhauser warned.
The deal to manage the port eventually went to a Singapore-based company that works with China Merchants Port Holdings, which already has a stake in the Djibouti port.
A few hours after Waldhauser’s comments, Tillerson gave a speech at the University of Virginia in which he lamented Beijing’s economic engagement model, saying it undermined democracy and mired African countries in debt. When he landed in Ethiopia a day later, he warned African nations from forfeiting their sovereignty and to “carefully consider” the terms of their agreements with China. “We are not in any way attempting to keep Chinese dollars from Africa,” he added.
DP World is out. (Reuter/Ahmed Jadallah)Despite giving millions of dollars in aid, China has eclipsed the US in Africa in many ways: providing loans, financing much-needed infrastructure, competing for resources like oil and minerals, increasing its trade share, and spreading its ideological influence. And despite Africa’s immense economic growth, “there has not been much traction on the economic and diplomatic aspects of US-Africa relations,” says Brahima Coulibaly, the director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution. This allowed partners like China to fill the void, hence strengthening its place in the continent.
As the continent looks to the East for aid and trade, US officials are increasingly focused on security and counterterrorism efforts. This is evident in all the nations Tillerson has or is due to visit—Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Chad, and Nigeria—which continue to fight terrorist groups like al-Shabaab or Boko Haram. The Trump administration has also given its military a wider scope to launch airstrikes in Somalia, is supporting African governments in intelligence and reconnaissance efforts, and is building a drone base in Niger, where eight US and Nigerien soldiers died in an ambush last year.
Coulibaly says unless Tillerson’s trip produces a clear dialogue that will inform US-Africa strategy, “the United States risks falling behind.”
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