AFRICANGLOBE – The heavens open and the rain rinses the street of the dry dust accumulated from the nearby construction site on the edge of Bole Ring Road in the Ethiopian capital.
Addis Ababa is booming: scaffoldings jigsaw the skyline, and trendy cafés flank newly built roads. Within an intricate web of cautious governance and economic intervention, there is one common thread in Ethiopia’s rapid growth over the last 10 years.
“The Chinese – they’re building everything,” says Charra Tesfaye, a lecturer in international trade law at the University of Makele in northern Ethiopia.
The 4.3km Bole Road, built by the Chinese for $60mn, is just a pittance of the funds China has spent in Ethiopia.
Chinese and Turkish contractors are constructing a 5,000km railway network that will link the entire country, including neighbouring Djibouti, to Addis Ababa. The $3.2bn project is likely to shift the economic logic of the region, as landlocked Ethiopia will be henceforth given a route to the coast.
Such is the frenetic pace of the project that a 1,800km stretch is expected to be complete by 2015.
Ethiopia, however, is not the sole recipient of aid, loans or developmental assistance from China. The country is fourth on a long list – behind Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan – among the top African beneficiaries of Chinese largesse.
Since 2002, China has invested an estimated $75bn on the continent, hot on the heels of the United States, which invested $90bn during the same period. The US might still hold the edge over China on investment, but the Chinese replaced the US as Africa’s biggest trade partner in 2009.
This has prompted concern over dwindling American influence on the continent. While that may be premature – and President Barack Obama has publicly denied any trepidation over China’s increasing role here – the US is readjusting its approach to Africa.
Obama arrived on Monday in Tanzania on the final leg of his African trip, after visiting Senegal and South Africa.
In between calls for consolidating democracy and improving governance, it is, as the adage goes, the “economy, stupid,” that has motivated Obama’s current three-country safari to the continent.
Speaking to reporters before his departure – former US assistant secretary of state for African Affairs – admitted as much when she said the US would need to “pursue higher levels of engagement to effectively compete with China’s growing influence in Africa”.
As the US and Europe struggle with the global economic crisis, China has been undeterred in its financial investments. Its motivations in Africa, however, have inceasingly been questioned in recent years.
China’s Economic Mercenaries?
While the Chinese are purposefully portrayed as a marauding armada of economic mercenaries armed with cheap goods that annihilate local manufacturing and explosives and jackhammers to satisfy relentless mining ambitions, other analysts and politicians say the story is far more complex.
Those who criticise China today are the same ones who used to impose their will on Africa, said Joram Biswaro, Tanzania’s ambassador to Ethiopia.
“Those who believe so [that China is a threat] have no right to choose friends for Africa,” he said.
While critics contend China’s scant regard for local politics and human rights colours their scramble for African resources with self-interest, African leaders argue that China is merely providing for the continent’s growing needs.
If Africa is fast becoming the battlefield for natural resources, Tanzania is on the frontline. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tanzania on his maiden foreign trip as president just over three months ago. Obama will become the third in a succession of US presidents – along with Bill Clinton and George W Bush – to pay the east African country a visit.
Not only does Tanzania boast the longest shoreline on the continent after Somalia, its close proximity to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central Africa Republic makes it a strategic hub of investment and political influence.
Factor in newly discovered gas reserves inland and offshore, and Tanzania’s importance is rapidly increasing.
On Tuesday, Obama traveled with a delegation of 500 investors and businessmen to Tanzania.
But before leaving South Africa for Dar es Salam, Obama pledged $7bn to upgrade power distribution in Africa.
While the US is clearly trying to play catch up, Greg Mills, from the Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg says it is not a case of countering Chinese growth in the region.
“The continent has improved because of Chinese interest and improved political conditions in many countries on the continent … It has taken China to open up the worlds’ eyes to the potential in Africa,” Mills said.