By Víctor Escribano and Lucía Blanco Gracia
Nairobi/Shanghai, Jan 6 (EFE) – China’s economic strategy in Africa was given a boost this week with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Kenya, who met Thursday with president Uhuru Kenyatta on the second stop of his tour of Africa, which includes Eritrea and Comoros.
“Our commitment is to be a good friend and partner to Africa. Our bilateral relationship has become an excellent example of solidarity, cooperation and common development between China and Africa,” Wang said from the coastal resort city of Mombasa after signing several bilateral agreements with his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo.
Wang announced that Beijing plans to assign a special Chinese envoy to support “peace and prosperity” in the troubled Horn of Africa region.
The minister also rejected suspicions of the Asian giant’s strategy in the continent: what critics call a “debt-trap”, Wang said, is just “a narrative created by those who do not want to see developments in Africa”. Detractors of Chinese expansionism in Africa refer to the alleged strategic use of debt to make African countries captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.
Wang’s tour, which fulfills the decades-old tradition of the Chinese diplomacy chief’s first foreign trip of the year being in Africa, reaffirms Beijing’s commitment to its economic and political relationship with the continent, which has made China Africa’s top trading partner.
NEW SILK ROAD
According to data collected by John Hopkins University (Baltimore, USA), between 2000 and 2019, Chinese entities signed more than 1,100 loan commitments valued at some $153 billion with governments or publicly owned companies in Africa.
Many of these loans were made under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was launched in 2013 as a flagship project for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy.
The initiative, also known as the New Silk Road, is a network of infrastructures that connects China by land and sea with Asia, Europe and Africa, although contracts on the African continent have been criticized for their opacity and the risk of incurring debts that are difficult to pay.
Of this amount, some 45.8 billion (30%) would have been allocated to transport-related initiatives, with major projects such as the train line between Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya, which, together with Ethiopia and Angola, is the main recipient of Chinese credit.
“China has been that one friend who is always there when we ask for partnerships to help us achieve what we require. They walk with us hand in hand,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Thursday after meeting with Wang.
China has also allocated much of its loans to Africa in the energy sector – 26% of the total – and mining, with Angola being the biggest recipient in both markets.
The Asian country is also behind the financing and construction of important buildings on the continent, including the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa.
Despite the investments, amid mounting criticism the Asian giant has scaled back its funding: between 2017 and 2019 it delivered some $30.2 billion, barely more than the $29.5 billion it granted in 2016 alone.
That year represented the peak of Chinese financing in Africa, largely because of a $10 billion loan that Angola used to recapitalize Sonangol, the state-owned company that controls oil and natural gas production.
Not only has Chinese investment in the continent been reduced, but its strategy has changed, said Kenyan researcher Cliff Mboya, who specializes in Africa-China relations, in an interview with Efe.
“There has been a shift: from the mega-infrastructure-focused debt that was associated with BRI to other, less risky forms of credit that include public-private partnerships. It is now more private sector focused,” according to Mboya.
At the eighth ministerial conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in November in Dakar, Beijing pledged to invest another $60 billion in the continent through to 2035 in areas such as agriculture, manufacturing or infrastructure, and in less traditional areas such as environmental protection and the digital economy.