“It’s always difficult to disentangle interests with China,” Judd Devermont, the CIA’s former senior Africa analyst and the current Africa director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “If you look across all of their projects, some of them would look like fairly good commercial deals. Some of them would have clear political capital. Some of them may serve security or military interests. But I think it’s incredibly difficult to look at the debt and make a broad statement.” Indeed, the true costs of China’s rise on the continent may lie elsewhere: in illegal mining, environmental degradation, increased corruption, or simply bad work.
Even when China’s debt-trap diplomacy doesn’t manifest itself as clearly and literally as some have described it, such lending can still benefit China politically. Researchers at the College of William & Mary have found that if an African country votes with China in the United Nations an additional 10 percent of the time, it will receive an additional 86 percent in aid. Following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2018 pledge to deploy $60 billion to Africa, such dividends for Chinese diplomacy will likely only grow.
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Worrying though these developments may be in the West, people here aren’t worrying—they’re celebrating. In China, Africa has found willing and able financiers, engineers, and partners who have come to the continent without the West’s strict conditions on democratization, liberalization, and privatization. “[The West] used to hold the stick and the carrot,” Gerald Mbanda, an official at the Rwanda Governance Board and the author of the recently released book China and Rwanda, told me. “But now the carrot got smaller, and someone else is offering a full carrot with no stick accompanying. Which one would you prefer?”
Today, as China has come to finance one in five infrastructure projects in Africa and build one in three, it is clear that its stick-less carrot is what is finding favor. According to Afrobarometer, Africa’s leading polling firm, not only is China considered to be the most influential country on the continent, but 63 percent of Africans believe that influence to be positive.
Now the United States is hoping to do something about China’s rise. Just last month, the Trump administration rolled out a new program, Prosper Africa, to address the issue. But with only $50 million in its budget, earmarked solely for providing technical assistance to U.S. firms setting up shop in Africa, it’s unclear how Prosper Africa might help. So far, in fact, it has only seemed to hurt. At the launch ceremony in Mozambique, a former Liberian minister of public works fumed, “The U.S. does not even have the decency, the courtesy, to send a Cabinet-level official to this event.” Indeed, the presence of Deputy Commerce Secretary Karen Dunn Kelley stood in stark contrast to how China has treated the continent, which has been visited by President Xi twice and by his foreign minister annually (neither of whom has referred to African nations as “shithole countries,” as President Donald Trump has).