China's President Xi Jinping (L) accompanies Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso (R) to view an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on September 5, 2018, a day after the conclusion of the Forum On China-Africa Cooperation. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Lintao Zhang

During a state visit to China last month, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad warned against what he called “a new version of colonialism,” which was seen as a rebuke to China’s increasing economic and political dominance in the region.

The accusation that China is pursuing neo-colonialism and debt diplomacy, especially through its global trade and infrastructure projects under the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has been made by others.

However, in a speech at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing early this week, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa refuted such criticisms, stating that the triennial meeting itself “refutes the view that a new colonialism is taking hold in Africa, as our detractors would have us believe.”

The remarks by Mahathir and Ramaphosa epitomize the views that Asian and African countries hold toward China. While Asian countries are cautious of their giant neighbor, with some of them questioning, reconsidering or pushing back against China-financed megaprojects, African nations are adopting an opposite posture.

During his August 17-21 China visit, Mahathir also announced he would cancel Beijing-backed projects, including a US$20 billion railway, part of China’s BRI, saying his nation couldn’t afford such expensive and unnecessary projects.

Though they don’t opt for a complete about-turn, as Malaysia, once a poster child for BRI projects in the region, did, some other Southeast Asian nations have reservations about China-backed projects.

Despite its pro-Chinese stance, Myanmar’s government wants to sharply scale down the $7.3-billion Kyauk Pyu port project, another key part of Beijing’s ambitious infrastructure program, due to debt concerns and worries about overdependence on China.

In Vietnam, China’s communist neighbor, there are also concerns about Chinese loans and China-led projects. In a report sent to Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the country’s Ministry of Investment and Planning said China’s loans are less preferable to assistance from other countries, such as Japan, and China-financed projects have been poorly executed and cost more than expected.

These countries, notably Malaysia and Myanmar, have pushed back against Beijing-financed projects probably because they are aware of the heavy price that Sri Lanka had to pay for being too reliant on – and highly indebted to – China. Last year, as it was unable to repay China for the $1.4-biilion Hambantota port project, the South Asian nation was forced to lease the strategic port to the Chinese for 99 years.

Pakistan, another South Asian nation, is also faced with the same dilemma as there are question marks over its ability to repay colossal Chinese loans related to the $62-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), another key component of China’s BRI. In fact, according to the Center for Global Development, it is one of the eight most vulnerable to debt distress due to BRI-related financing.

Remarkably, according to the findings of this American think-tank, among these eight nations, six are Asian (Laos, Kyrgyz Republic, Maldives, Mongolia, Pakistan and Tajikistan) and only one (Djibouti) is African and one is European (Montenegro).

This could be a reason why African countries are still very receptive to China, its loans and Beijing-funded projects.

In many respects, Africa’s overtures toward China are explicable. Many countries in this vast continent are facing two fundamental development bottlenecks – namely lack of infrastructure and funding.

Without huge amounts of foreign money, they cannot build the infrastructure they need for their development. Three years ago, China promised to give Africa $60 billion in aid and loans. On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged another $60 billion over the next three years “in the form of government assistance as well as investment and financing by financial institutions and companies.”

In many respects, Africa’s overtures toward China are explicable. Many countries in this vast continent are facing two fundamental development bottlenecks – namely lack of infrastructure and funding

At the moment, only China is able and willing to offer the 1.2-billion-people continent such amounts.

In an interview with Xinhua, Rwandan President Paul Kagame rejected China’s “debt trap,” calling it an attempt to discourage relations between China and Africa. He was also quoted by China’s official news agency as saying that “those criticizing China on debt give too little.”

What’s more, unlike the United States, the European Union and other Western countries, Beijing follows what Xi calls a “five-no” approach in its relations with Africa, including “no interference in African countries’ internal affairs” and “no attachment of political strings to assistance to Africa.”

While it’s open to debate whether and why China practices what its supreme leader says, it is unquestionable that such rhetoric and practice is attractive to African leaders, many of whom are perceivably authoritarian or corrupt.

Another key reason why African leaders enthusiastically “embrace” China and its BRI is that their countries, which are far away from China and whose ties with the latter remain relatively new, don’t have any territorial disputes nor yet endure any first-hand experience of Chinese aggression.

By contrast, many countries in Asia, notably in Southeast Asia, have long-standing, unresolved territorial disputes with their giant neighbor and/or have experienced its antagonism. Consequently, they are wary of China and its domination.

Mahathir halted China-financed projects, including two gas pipelines worth $2.3 billion, partly because of the 93-year old’s concerns about Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea.

In an interview in July, he criticized China’s militarization in this hotly disputed and strategically vital region in recent years, saying that “there should not be too many warships” in the waters as “warships create tension.”

At a time when China is overtly and forcefully seeking to expand its regional and global influence, views such as those oMahathir are not just understandable but also advisable.

Following his decision to cancel Beijing-funded projects as well as his and many others’ warning against neo-colonialism, Beijing has apparently recalibrated its posture.

Meeting with Chinese leaders and officials in late August, Xi Jinping stressed, “The BRI is an initiative for economic cooperation, instead of a geopolitical alliance or military league,” specifying that it “is an open and inclusive process rather than an exclusive bloc or ‘China club’.”

Addressing African leaders this week, he went further by exempting “Africa’s least developed countries, heavily indebted and poor countries” from debts “incurred in the form of interest-free Chinese government loans due to mature by the end of 2018.” While it’s unclear exactly which countries are exempted and what their outstanding debts are, such an exemption is a good gesture.

Against this background, it can be said that African countries indirectly benefit from the Malaysian leader’s China critiques. Thus, rather than submissively dancing to China’s tune, African leaders should also adopt a nuanced or critical view.

Indeed, as Kenya’s Daily Nation argued in its recent editorial, it is time and vital “for African leaders to critically interrogate their relationship with China.” Instead of attending the FOCAC to praise China, they “should use the summit to ask tough questions” such as “What are the benefits in this relationship?” This is because, as the newspaper pointed out, besides the financial pains that China’s huge infrastructure loans may inflict in the long run, the Asian giant’s “influence has [already] extended to the social levels, where they export labour and take up local jobs.”

Perhaps, similarly, instead of straightly and stringently rejecting its critics’ criticisms, Beijing should be open to them.

In a piece in the UK’s Daily Telegraph on September 3, Xinhua writers quoted an old Chinese saying: “Good friends feel close to each other even when they are thousands of miles away” and maintained that the saying “can be applied today to China-Africa relations.”

They should also ask why some of China’s close neighbors still feel distant toward – and even  suspicious of – their country.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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