By Oluniyi Robbin-Coker (China Daily Europe)
It was only 30 years or so ago that countries in Africa would view images of China on Western media and think to themselves: “We are in the same boat.”
But oh how the story has changed.
China has been able to harness its history, people, culture, know-how and vision to deliver the economic miracle of the early 21st century.
I was recently afforded the opportunity to visit Dongguan, in Guangdong province of southern China. What used to be an agrarian economy now boasts of being a highly-productive and energetic industrial metropolis covering an area of about 2,500 square kilometers.
According to the mayor, the city of eight million people produces one in five of the world’s mobilephones and 10 percent of its shoes. Not only did I see clear evidence of that, but also visited an institution at one of the new industrial parks which is leading the charge in intelligent robotics as the driver of the next phase of industrial development.
Much of China’s success can be attributed to a relentless focus on infrastructure, energy and education. Couple this with stable leadership and an ability to negotiate the best terms for China with Western multinationals jostling to get in to this huge consumer market then, hey presto, the magic is done.
China’s investment in Africa has been viewed with some trepidation and suspicion, promoted largely by those who think that it could gain more influence there too quickly. With Africa having been traditionally Europe’s backyard and a significant contributor to its economic growth for so long, it is understandable that any threat to the status quo would be of concern.
And, of course, with so many in the African leadership trained and educated in the West, even many Africans can be suspicious. But the case for nurturing and growing “Afro-Sino” trade and investment relations is compelling.
Already China has gained a strong foothold in Africa, supporting the infrastructure and power sectors with affordable loans and technical expertise. In some instances, they have even ventured into build-operate-transfer and other purchasing power parity models which reduce the burden on the beneficiary government’s balance sheet.
China is also expanding its educational footprint with Africa. Every year it sponsors thousands of African students on study tours and cultural exchanges to China. Participants get 3 or 4-week training programs which combine technical expertise with cultural exposure. Many return enamoured of China and inspired with the promise of what an Afro-Sino partnership could deliver.
Since as early as 2008 it has been established that China is Africa’s largest trading partner. The Brookings Institution in 2014 published “Eight facts about China’s investment’s in Africa” which asserted that “In 2012, China’s trade with Africa reached $198.5 billion, while US-African trade in 2012 was $99.8 billion.”
In the specific case of my home country, Sierra Leone, China is the single largest foreign investor, with Shandong Iron and Steel Co having invested over $1.5 billion in an iron mine, with accompanying port and rail infrastructure, even when the project holding company was listed on the AIM in London. It has now taken full control of the project and its assets.
So why does the Afro-Sino relationship work and why is it is crucial to global development?
Simple. Both Africa and China have respect firmly embedded into their cultural DNA and both understand that they need each other further down the road.
China has proved adept at playing the long game and has bet on Africa, not only as a source of raw materials but as a growing consumer market.
While the Chinese have leveraged state-owned enterprises to enable investment in Africa’s infrastructure and power sectors, they are making great strides moving into more commercial ventures as evidenced with industrial parks in Ethiopia and the 10-point plan announced in December by President Xi Jinping at the Forum on China Africa Cooperation in South Africa.
With a population that is poised to be the largest in the world by 2050, China knows Africa is its future and therefore wants a partner. Add to that Africa as a gateway to deliver Afro-Sino products to Europe and the Americas and the partnership becomes even more compelling.
Indulge me for a moment. I am Western-educated and trained, having lived a substantial part of my life in the UK and US. I know Apple makes great devices, but not for me and my market. When you switch on an iPhone, it immediately wants you to go online to the Apple store. Thanks buddy. But I live in a small corner of Africa where broadband is not pervasive. I am not your customer.
On the other hand, Samsung declared that it had a business strategy to generate profits in Africa by selling its products there. It quickly recognized the need for dual SIM phones. China has gone one stage further with brands like Tecno phone, which are affordable, reliable and robust and seem to only be found in Africa. In meeting my needs they have demonstrated respect for me as a customer and a source of revenue.
Like any good marriage this relationship depends on cooperation. Each party needs to recognize where its strengths lie, when to use those strengths and when to yield to the other.
Africa, too, can learn the long game and, while it does not have the benefit of monolithic decision making or centralized economic planning, African leaders can up their game in negotiating with China and Chinese investors.
It is up to African citizens to hold their leaders accountable. This is not the responsibility of Chinese, or indeed any other foreign investors.
As China assumes a greater influence on the global economy and transitions toward being a reserve currency, I have no doubt in my mind that it is only a matter of time before countries exporting minerals and agricultural commodities to China begin to nominate renminbi-based transactions, further cementing the partnership – with or without the blessing of the rest of the world.
Who needs three in a marriage anyway?
The author is chairman of the Board of Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
(China Daily European Weekly 10/28/2016 page9)