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Jean-Pierre Cabestan is a sinologist, research director at CNRS and associate researcher at the Asia Center in Paris. Author of a dozen books on China, the most recent of which is China tomorrow: war or peace? (Gallimard, 2020), he has specialized for ten years in the development of the Chinese presence in Africa.
The last Forum on Sino-African Cooperation (Focac), which was held in Dakar at the end of November, seems to have marked a shift in the Sino-African relationship with a more cautious financial commitment on the part of Beijing. Have we moved on to a new phase of China-Africa?
There are many elements of continuity with the two previous summits, in particular the emphasis placed on educational, cultural and security cooperation. But it is true that there is an adjustment. Everyone noted the reduction in the financial envelope, linked to an awareness of the issue of the increasingly important debt of African countries towards China. It is a way, for Beijing, to react to the criticisms formulated by the Africans and the members of the G-20 which are in the process of rescheduling the debts of the developing countries. But this adjustment is also, more generally, part of the downward revision of funds allocated to the “Silk Roads”.
The issue of Africa’s debt to China is a source of controversy. Do you think this is a “trap”, a notion that some China-Africa specialists reject?
The topic is not the debt per se, as the donors are not always predominantly Chinese. The real problem is the deepening of the asymmetrical relationship between China and African countries with small economies. The latter are in a state of multifaceted dependence, which is not only linked to debt but to an increasingly strong Chinese economic presence.
Didn’t this dependence also take a diplomatic form?
Yes, and all the more so since the Covid-19 pandemic has allowed China to advance its pawns, especially in the countries of the South. In Africa, we can clearly see in the press releases published within the framework of Focac the use of Chinese formulations, on human rights, on Hong Kong, on the question of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, on governance. There is a real lack of expertise on China in Africa and it is a big problem. African leaders often do not know where they are setting foot or who they are talking to. They do not always realize that they are dealing with a very organized Leninist regime to impose its rhetoric on others. Even in countries that are a priori well equipped, such as South Africa, overly critical voices have been dismissed.
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