When the new coronavirus (COVID-19) broke out in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, nobody, not even the World Health Organization (WHO), knew how far-reaching and devastating it would be. COVID-19 has exposed the limitations of the power of humans and rendered powerful states powerless. As the world’s scientists are racing to find a vaccine, countries are struggling to adjust to the “new normal.”
What then does the future hold for international relations, particularly China-Africa relations after COVID-19? As Africa battles to contain the COVID-19, it is time to test China’s professed “all-weather friendship” to see how deep the friendship Beijing has repeatedly claimed to share with Africa truly runs. An assessment of China’s relations with Africa after COVID-19 has to consider three major areas—aid/investment, trade, and people-to-people relations.
First, at the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, China did not delay in supporting Africa, even when the number of reported cases was so small and when its assistance was met with rejection in a country like Nigeria. On June 13 2020 a communiqué issued by the African Union conveyed that China ensured the supply of 30 million testing kits, 10,000 ventilators, and 80 million masks each month for Africa. In the face of economic difficulty (coronavirus outbreak severely weakened China’s first-quarter economic performance), China, at the “Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity Against COVID-19” still assured Africa that it will start ahead of schedule the construction of the “Africa Center for Disease Control” headquarters this year. Although China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Africa have attracted great attention with fears on Africa’s debt servicing amid economic crisis, African leaders are still sourcing for more loans from China to balance budget deficit. About 70 percent (that is, roughly $17 billion) of the new $22.7 billion Nigerian government’s loan bid will be coming from China’s EXIM Bank. What this means is that China still has a special role to play in Africa’s developmental agenda. In terms of investments, China has left an indelible mark in Africa. In Sudan, China has a huge investment in the energy sector. In Nigeria, one of the largest construction projects China is working on, is the rehabilitation of Nigeria’s railway and construction of new ports. In Kenya, its 472 km railways are 80% Chinese-financed. In Ethiopia, China-built-and-financed 756km Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway valued at $4 billion US dollars. And many more that are underway. China has invested billions into the continent from small-to-large-scale-businesses. Its cooperation with Africa has also gone deep into the grass-roots, rural areas, and fields. According to the Chinese Ambassador to Nigeria, “these are what those countries that intend to discredit China-Africa cooperation cannot do at all and what they are unwilling to do. Chinese are everywhere and into every “business” just like the locals, making the relations between China and Africa unique and “everlasting.” Amid COVID-19, Chinese firms became channels of administering aid; a new shift seen in China-Africa relations that is likely to be cemented after COVID-19.
Second, China’s trade with Africa, although largely driven by China, is significant. African business owners have made China the target destination for the import of manufactured goods. In just two decades, the Sino-Africa trade expanded twentyfold, from $10 billion in 2000 to more than $200 billion today. Africa is yet to advance in its industrialization at the same speed China did and there is no evidence to show that Africa is going to change its market for manufactured goods. Moreover, Chinese cheap goods are sources of attraction. Chinese companies are also manufacturing in Africa. An estimated 12 percent of Africa’s industrial production valued at some $500 billion a year in total is handled by Chinese. At the end of COVID, there is likely to be an increase in relations between China and Africa for clear reasons—the virus spread which the US believes was not well handled by China has increased backlash (in addition to trade war) against China from the Trump-led administration. Thus, Chinese firms and goods are likely to face more scrutiny from the US, and China will have to find solace elsewhere. Also, it is expected that more Chinese firms will arrive in Africa given the opportunity that will be provided by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and its market of 1.2 billion people when it takes off in January 2021.
Third, people-to-people relations is one area that might not work in China’s favour in Africa after COVID-19, unless properly managed. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the relationship between Chinese and Africans was increasingly tensed and in some cases suspicious. The coronavirus outbreak revealedlack of understanding between ordinary Chinese people and Africans which China should look into in its future relations with Africa for two major reasons- (i) civil society groups are increasingly playing significant roles in the foreign policy of states, and as the world reawakens to the evil of racism after the cruel murder of George Floyd, Chinese future activities in Africa might also face serious scrutiny from civil society groups. Discrimination and maltreatment Africans faced in the Chinese city of Guangzhou during the COVID-19 quarantine (for example, the video of Nigerian diplomat complaining of maltreatment of Nigerians that went viral) have caused outrage and public scepticism about the Chinese in Africa. Currently, Nigeria’s House of Representatives is investigating the Chinese medical team that arrived in the country on April 8 2020 to support the fight against the pandemic. (ii) China has a large population (around 1 million Chinese people live in Africa, probably making it the continent’s largest non-African migrant population) that has to be “protected” against “resentment” or future revenge in form of discrimination. While China can claim that it has a strong connection/relationship with African governments, it must realise that ordinary citizens can frustrate the efforts of Chinese counterparts, and make it difficult for Chinese to operate successfully in Africa.
Clearly, China-Africa relations after COVID-19 will face readjustment, but will not be dampened. In the words of Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi during a state visit to Zimbabwe on 12 January 2020 “no matter how the international situation has changed, the friendship between China and Africa has become even stronger, and the torch has been handed down on and on. [Relations between China and Africa] have stood up to the test, eliminated the disturbance, and become a model for international relations and South-South cooperation.”
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI.