Oil has lubricated the controversial relationship between China and Africa until now. However, grains of sand can be seen, preventing the complex mechanism from functioning without friction. The Chinese premier, Li Ke Qiang’s, recent visit confirmed that China can find both oil and sand fields in the Sahara. He visited four large and critical countries for Beijing: Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola, and Kenya. There, he registered both successes and difficulties. The novelty was the presence of the latter, nearly absent in the success stories until now. The improving relationship between China and Africa after Zhou En Lai’s third world historical footnote was undoubtedly a win-win situation. Beijing’s advantages were probably much more numerous, but underdeveloped African nations also benefited. The terms of the exchange were notable and simple: Beijing delivers investments, and Africa repays them with raw materials. The political umbrella was international friendship, the condemnation of colonialism, and defeating underdevelopment. The terms were acquired, analyzed, and affirmed by their pragmatic substance.
However, the numbers signal a souring of affection between the two regions. Despite Li’s efforts to increase Africa’s line of credit from $20 to $30 million (while simultaneously doubling the total commercial exchange by 2020), the African continent’s importance to China appears to be dipping. The minister of finance published worrisome statistics concerning the investments of Chinese companies in Africa: $2.5 billion in 2012, $3.2 in 2011, and $5.5 (the maximum) in 2010. Capital is being directed more and more toward big businesses in industrialized countries endowed with mineral resources like the US, Canada, and Australia, rather than toward smaller acquisitions that must be compensated for with the construction of infrastructure. The list of suspended agreements and interrupted projects grows longer, from infrastructure in Nigeria and Libya, mines in Congo, Gabon, and Angola. Altogether, industrialized nations now represent 15% of the destinations of Chinese investments; almost double the amount ten years ago. Furthermore, institutional complaints are declining. Even with the inevitable prudence to not compromise relations with an indispensible partner, secretaries, bankers, and representatives of multilateral organizations lament China’s disengagement, its sluggishness in fulfilling contracts, and its relative disinterest compared to the beginning of collaboration. The social perception of China is palpable, although not objectively measurable. Discomfort is growing toward an operation that is considered predatory in its extreme valuations and imbalanced in its most thoughtful. It’s difficult to calculate the reciprocal advantages, and in effect, it’s unknown how many jobs these investments created, or if the flowering of Confucius Institutes in Africa was due to education or cultural propaganda against the west.
The slow down has many causes. The primary was the falling price of raw materials that rendered the security of supplies less binding. If investing in new oilrigs was too much of a hassle, then oil could be purchased on the market. Chinese investors have become more sophisticated and they are, therefore, attracted to more complex and risky operations. In any case, it’s likely that a reawakening of African pride, albeit late, is in effect, and that the perception of being victims rather than partners is growing. Time has demonstrated that agreements must lead to immaterial results as well, such as the creation of a model, affirmation of values, and a respect between nations that overlooks their dimensions. The convenience of accords with China cannot be denied and improvements are evident, but today there is a strong feeling that purely financial results are not sufficient for the redemption of African nations.