China takes a firm stance in its partnerships with African countries that can be summarised as follows: you have obtained independence, but remain dependent on western countries. China can offer true liberation and genuine economic development: a win-win partnership.
Undoubtedly Brazil, Russia, India and Turkey provide alternative options. Establishing competition between suppliers and service providers is an advantage for African countries. Another advantage is access to the Yiwu Grand Bazaar, which supplies Africa with cheap manufactured goods its traditional partners cannot offer African consumers. However, these advantages are useless if Africa does not take the opportunity to make practical use of its links with China – in other words, to positively exploit China.
The Chinese presence in Africa is particularly evident in the construction, oil exploration and mining sectors, as well as in the importation of goods. However, Chinese companies have little input in material production on the continent. Furthermore, the Chinese presence is very different in qualitative terms from the industrialising presence of western countries in China at the root of the ‘Chinese miracle’.
Undoubtedly more serious is the range of projects carried out by Chinese companies. In the case of a build, operate and transfer (BOT) contract, the company selected to implement the project is an investor that is compensated by exploiting the infrastructure it has created in a country. The investor company must also take account of the running costs to guarantee the return on its investment and to make a profit. However, in the case of an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract, the company selected is only a service provider paid a fixed amount (in kind or in cash) on completion of the work. In this second case the prime contractor is not required to look ahead; the cost of a BOT contract is therefore higher than that of an EPC project. This latter solution is consequently more popular given the low cost and speed of execution – presumably at the expense of quality — that takes precedence when choosing a contractor. Favouring the short-term over the long-term could mean that China is a better opportunity for the powers in place who purchase social peace and guarantee their continued existence through projects that are effectively mortgages on the future than for the economies of these countries.
It is not enough for African governments to exploit Chinese (or other foreign) companies, they must also ensure that foreign companies’ participation forms part of a development strategy that accounts for the real costs of investments and their long-term impact. Then –and only then– can we consider whether China is actually an opportunity for African countries or whether the financial support granted to Chinese companies during the last Forum on China-Africa Cooperation will benefit African development. And finally whether this really is a win-win partnership. Whether it will be is ultimately more dependent on Africa than on China, as suggested by Lamido Sanusi in 2013 in his much talked about letter to the Financial Times.