China’s attempts to take hold of the entire African continent through an extensive debt trap have been foiled in a rather brutal manner. Beijing now finds itself trapped in a somewhat peculiar situation in this part of the world. As the COVID-19 Pandemic caused ripples across the world, Africa too realised the perils associated with Chinese influence.
However, the African countries never really had the option of going hammer and tongs after Beijing unlike the developed nations such as Australia and the UK. Hence, the Continent is forming its own strategy. A number of African countries that support China on key issues like the Hong Kong National Security Law have started demanding debt relief and an extortionist Beijing now finds itself getting harassed.
The stakes are high- China happens to be Africa’s biggest lender with debts worth more than $150 billion owed. Overall, in 2019, China’s outstanding debt claims stood at well over $5 trillion.
The sentiment in the African continent started turning against China after a spate of racial crimes in China targeting the African community. In the guise of cracking down on Wuhan virus, China had started harassing the African people in the country which drew sharp reactions from the African Continent.
The racial attacks in China created resentment against Chinese investments and loans in the African continent. Media circles have come to understand that the Chinese investments, including Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a debt trap. Unlike all other countries, Africa wants to get rid of predatory Chinese investment, but it does not have the option of going all-out unlike some of the bigger powers around the world.
Therefore, African countries have started what we can call more of a quid pro quo with China. At a time when Sinophobia is peaking around the world, African countries like Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone have supported Beijing on issues like ‘One China Policy’ and the brutal National Security Law in Hong Kong.
The Chinese State media flaunts the support of 53 countries, including many African countries, on key issues. But we would be mistaken to think that these countries are supporting China out of diplomatic goodwill. They are being as transactional as it can get. Indeed, many of the countries supporting China have also been demanding debt relief and forgiveness.
Zambia President Edgar Lungu for instance telephoned the Chinese President Xi Jinping recently. Lungu asked for some debt-relief measures in the wake of a global pandemic, which to begin with has been China’s making. In the same conversation, he also said that his country supports Beijing’s ‘One China Policy.’
Of course, the African countries will not say it in so many words that they would formally support China’s expansionist policy only if Beijing offers debt relief. But the signals are too hard to miss for anyone, including China. African countries are aware that China spread its tentacles to their Continent in the first place because the Dragon was drawn in by the vast natural resources on offer. Beijing cannot afford to forfeit its access to these resources by not giving in to the demands of debt relief.
More importantly, the African countries carry a lot of political significance. Resources can be extracted from other parts of the world, but if and when key matters like Hong Kong and Taiwan land before the United Nations, China will not be able to outsource political support. The 54 African countries plays a huge role because no matter how small a country, it gets one equal vote before the UN General Assembly.
China cannot afford to let go the official support of African countries on international platforms. Therefore, it does not come as a matter of surprise that countries which support China’s brutal crackdown in Hong Kong are also the ones that are most vocal about debt relief.
Zimbabwe, for example, has tried to save 50 million US dollars from the debt relief offered by China. Other countries like Angola, Sudan and the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) are also supporting China’s brutal crackdown in Hong Kong and at the same time demanding debt relief.
With passage of time, the bigger powers will also realise that this is the moment to harass China in Africa. Even in the month of May, the US had encouraged African economies reeling under Chinese debt to seek a change of terms from the lender. Going ahead, African countries could be encouraged to demand nothing less than debt forgiveness from China.
China knows that it needs a lot of diplomatic and economic presence in Africa. Therefore, it had created an admittedly “complex” debt situation in the country. But it has backfired badly. As Beijing desperately reaches out to Africa for support over Hong Kong and Taiwan, the entire African Continent is emerging as a huge NPA for China.
The hostile climate following Chinese racism against Africans also means that any Chinese attempt at neo-colonialism or enforcement of debt could trigger more outrage against the Dragon. Africa is thus playing an extortion game with a helpless China, and there are millions of dollars at stake which Beijing could lose.