This polarization reveals the two sides of the same coin. On the positive side, China’s aid and development financing fills a void left by the West and promotes the development of African countries. Many Chinese projects require large investment and long pay-back terms that traditional donors are reluctant to provide. On the other hand, however, these short-term benefits should not form a cover-up for the potential long-term negative consequences associated with neglecting issues of governance, fairness and sustainability. For example, when the “tied aid” is linked to the profitability of Chinese companies, it becomes questionable whether China would prioritize Africa’s interests or its own.
There is also an ongoing debate inside China about the goal and management of Chinese aid to Africa. For the foreign policy bureaucrats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, foreign aid is essentially a political instrument for China to strengthen bilateral ties and facilitate the development of African countries. In their view, political considerations should be the most important criteria in aid decision-making. Economic benefits associated with aid projects, such as profitability, resource extraction, or the acquisition service contracts for Chinese vendors, should only be secondary.
However, trade promoters such as the Ministry of Commerce have rather opposite perspective. In their view, foreign aid serves China’s overall national priority, which by definition is economic growth. Therefore, all aspects of aid decisions should reflect broad economic considerations. Under this logic, the inclination is to allocate the aid budget to countries that offer China the greatest number of commercial opportunities and benefits. Since China’s top economic interest is Africa’s natural resources, aid decisions are inevitably skewed toward resource-rich countries while others receive less favorable consideration.
This practice is problematic in that many of the resource-rich African countries with which China works also suffer from serious political problems, such as authoritarianism, poor governance, and corruption. When the Ministry of Commerce pursues economic gains and associates aid projects with resource extraction, it uses aid packages to promote business relations. This directly contributes to the negative perception that China is pouring aid, funding, and infrastructure projects to prop up corrupt governments in exchange for natural resources. As many Chinese analysts observe, the Foreign Ministry in recent years has been fighting fiercely for the authority to manage China’s foreign aid projects, which are currently under the purview of the Ministry of Commerce.
The intention of China’s aid to Africa is benign but not altruistic. China does not seek to use aid to influence the domestic politics of African countries or dictate policies. Instead, it truly hopes to help Africa achieve better development while avoiding meddling with the internal affairs of African countries through conditional aid. But on the other hand, China is not helping Africa in exchange for nothing. Chinese projects create access to Africa’s natural resources and local markets, business opportunities for Chinese companies and employment for Chinese labors. When Chinese officials emphasize that China also provides aid to countries that are not rich in natural resources to defuse international criticisms, they often forget to mention that China may have its eyes on other things which these countries can deliver, such as their support of Beijing’s “one China” policy, of China’s agenda at multilateral forums, and of China as a “responsible stakeholder.” In this sense, China’s comprehensive, multi-dimensional agenda of its aid to Africa defies any simplistic categorization.
By: Yun Sun