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China hosts African leaders amid criticism of debt-heavy diplomacy

By Ben Dooley

China hosts African leaders on Monday for a summit aimed at promoting Beijing’s vision for development on the continent, even as it finds itself increasingly criticised over its debt-heavy approach to foreign aid.

President Xi Jinping and leaders from across the continent will hold the two-day Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), with talks expected to focus on Xi’s cherished “Belt and Road” infrastructure programme.

China Sierra Leone Julius Maada

Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio (second-left) talks to China’s Premier Li Keqiang (second-right) during their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on September 2, 2018. Photo: Lintao Zhang/AFP.

The massive scheme is aimed at improving Chinese access to foreign markets and resources, and boosting Beijing’s influence abroad.

It has already seen China loan billions of dollars to countries in Asia and Africa for roads, railways, ports and other major building projects.

But critics warn that Xi’s pet project is burying some countries under massive debt.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his African counterparts on Sunday that Xi will use the summit as an opportunity to outline a “specific vision on building a China-Africa community with a shared future, and announce proposals and measures… to strengthen China-Africa cooperation.”

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For his part, South African Foreign Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said FOCAC must strengthen efforts to face emerging global challenges such as “the rising nationalistic ethos, populism, unilateralism, protectionism and the emergence of global trade wars.”

War crimes

At the last three-yearly gathering in Johannesburg in 2015, Xi announced US$60 billion of assistance and loans for Africa.

Nations across Africa are hoping that China’s enthusiasm for infrastructure investment will help promote industrialisation in their countries.

Xi spent the weekend in one-on-one meetings with leaders from the continent who arrived early for some face time with the head of the world’s second-largest economy.

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The guests include the presidents of countries ranging from Egypt to Senegal and South Africa, and controversial leaders such as Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.

Bashir is wanted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide related to the war in Darfur. He denies the charges.

Nevertheless, Bashir received a warm greeting from Xi, who told him he “welcomes Sudan’s participation in the Belt and Road” and “opposes foreign interference in Sudan’s internal affairs,” the official Xinhua news service reported Sunday.

China has provided aid to Africa since the Cold War, but Beijing’s presence in the region has grown exponentially with its emergence as a global trading power.

Chinese state-owned companies have aggressively pursued large investments in Africa, whose vast resources have helped fuel China’s transformation into an economic powerhouse.

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While relations between China and African nations are broadly positive, concerns have intensified about the impact of some of China’s deals in the region.

Djibouti has become heavily dependent on Chinese financing after China opened its first overseas military base in the Horn of Africa country last year, a powerful signal of the continent’s strategic importance to Beijing.

Locals in other countries have complained about the practice of using Chinese labour for building projects and what are perceived as sweetheart deals for Chinese companies.

The concerns are likely to grow as countries in other parts of the world – especially Southeast Asia – begin to question whether Chinese aid comes at too high a price, prompting Malaysia, for instance, to cancel a US$20-billion rail project last month.

China hosts African leaders amid criticism of debt-heavy diplomacy