“Between China and Africa, the relationship is deeply asymmetric”

To not miss anything on African news, subscribe to the newsletter of World Africa from this link. Every Saturday at 6 a.m., find a week of current events and debates treated by the editorial staff of World Africa.

Senegalese await the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping at Dakar airport in July 2018.

Thierry Pairault is a sinologist and socio-economist, emeritus research director (CNRS / EHESS) and specialist in the Chinese presence in Africa. He has just published, with Xavier Richet, Chinese economic presence in the Mediterranean (published by L’Harmattan / Iremmo). In an interview with World Africa, he explains that the Forum on Sino-African Cooperation (Focac) which takes place in Dakar from Sunday 28 to Tuesday 30 November begins “The end of illusions” after years of Chinese funding with limited impact on the continent’s development.

In what climate is the Dakar Focac opening up?

For the Chinese as for the Africans, it is a bit of the end of illusions. Everyone realizes that spending money is not enough to spark development. Africans, in particular, realize that the masses of money released by the Chinese, ultimately quite expensive in terms of interest rates and with very short repayment terms, are not enough to cause the economic and developmental shock. research.

Indirectly, this gives reason to the strategies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which rather soften the pedal to retain the most considered projects. This awareness is new on the African side. But the Chinese agree: they admit themselves that they have not carried out the profitability studies that were necessary to make the projects viable. They have therefore become harsher in the allocation of credits. The Dakar Focac is part of this context of a review taking place on both sides.

Read also Article reserved for our subscribers China weaves its web of trade across the world

How to identify the mutual interests between China and Africa?

The relationship is deeply asymmetric. China is damn important to Africa. The arrival of the Chinese, with their projects and their funding, allowed Africans to come out of the face-to-face, which was like a monologue, with the former colonial powers. It offers them a way to set themselves apart from the West, another way of looking at the world organization. In the other direction, namely the Chinese interest in Africa, it is necessary to distinguish the economic one from the political one.

Economically, Africa is by no means a priority for China. Africa’s place in China’s foreign merchandise trade is exactly the same as its place in world trade (3%). From this point of view, we must consider the Chinese “silk roads” beyond rhetoric. Africa is only interesting for China insofar as it borders sea routes to Europe. The Horn of Africa is certainly involved, but the Chinese objective is access to the European market.

However, a whole discourse has been built on Chinese investments in Africa …

Be careful, we must distinguish between real investments and services in the construction and infrastructure sectors (stadiums, airports, roads, real estate, etc.), which can be between ten and twenty times higher. In 2019, the former amounted to $ 2.7 billion [environ 2,4 milliards d’euros] and the seconds to 44 billion. The reality is that China is a service provider rather than an investor in Africa. By way of comparison, Chinese investments in Laos, a small country of 7 million inhabitants, alone represent in recent years around 30-40% of Chinese investments in the whole of Africa, a continent of 1.2 billion inhabitants.

Chinese activities in Africa are more about trade – goods or services – than production. Because besides the provision of services, there is foreign trade, which is still twice as high. We can clearly see that the commercial part is much more important than the actual investments. China participates only marginally in the industrialization of the continent. All the more so as these investments are concentrated on labor-intensive and low-capital-intensive activities, such as mining or leather goods, and involve little technology transfer.

Read also Burkina Faso on Chinese time

Since you are talking about mines, doesn’t China depend on these African supplies?

Absolutely not. China has played a reasonable card in diversifying its suppliers. We saw this when the crisis broke out with Australia. Guinea immediately replaced it as supplier of iron and bauxite. For all products, Beijing has alternatives. On oil for example, Angola, which supplied 7% of the Chinese needs, has just lost around 20% of this market. China has thus left itself a great deal of flexibility. On raw materials, African suppliers depend more on the Chinese customer than the opposite.

Is China’s interest in Africa therefore only political?

Every time China invests a small amount, buys or sells, it allows it to retain a clientele from which it will collect dividends at the United Nations – in terms of votes in the General Assembly. This is how she was able to obtain the direction of four UN agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the Organization for industrial development (Onudi) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Neither the Europeans nor the Americans have ever led so many instances at the same time. China could only conquer these positions thanks to African support, which is rather cheap.