How can African governments increase their bargaining power vis-a-vis China?

Folashade Soule has answers.

First, a reminder that African governments are not uniformly bad at negotiating with China:

….when you look closely at what happens on the ground, some African countries are much better at negotiating with the Chinese than others. Railway projects in East Africa appear to be a good example. In Kenya, the Standard Gauge Railway is the largest infrastructure project since independence from Britain in 1963. China Eximbank provided most of the finance for the first phase – 472 kilometres of track between Nairobi and Mombasa – at a cost of US$3.2 billion.

In neighbouring Ethiopia, an electric train line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, which is also Chinese-financed, opened two years ago. The cost for this more expensive type of railway was US$3.4 billion – for 756 kilometres. Kenya claims that its railway cost more for reasons like the terrain and the need to carry higher volumes of cargo. At the same time, however, many believe other issues to have been at play – including failures around the negotiation process.

Second, there are Soule’s suggested remedies:

Involve everyone: When all relevant government departments are involved in a negotiation, it does take longer. The process is more coherent, however, and the resulting project is less likely to breach national regulations.

Empower negotiators: The Chinese often adopt a take-it-or-leave-it approach. In many cases, Africans are not confrontational enough in return. They don’t appreciate that China has a surplus of domestically produced materials they are seeking to offload, for example. Wiser negotiators will play China off against other countries seeking to finance infrastructure projects on the continent, such as South Korea or the United Arab Emirates.

Keep the public onside: China tends to be popular in Africa – more so than the US in around 60% of countries on the continent. Yet the public also see negatives: many think Chinese products are poor quality, while there is a growing perception that dealing with China tends to favour Chinese labourers.

Increase knowledge: African governments are still relatively new to dealing with China; they should take every opportunity to share lessons with one another. There is a role for African universities here. They should set up more centres of Asian studies to close the gap in information and knowledge.

I fully agree.

While it is true that China has geopolitical ambitions in Africa, a lot of Chinese infrastructure plays in Africa are commercial in nature. It is in China’s interest that these projects succeed. That means that African governments could get better deals (in terms of value for money) by doing their homework (on Chinese politics and commercial and institutional architectures) before chasing the money. Similarly, public opinion presents a potential bargaining chip — (the threats of ) transparency and robust public participation should force Beijing’s hand in settling for better deals (from the perspective of African governments). 

All this, of course, is predicated on the assumption that African elites get loans from China to finance infrastructure projects; as opposed to dreaming up projects in order to get loans that then find their way into private bank accounts. 

Read the whole thing here.

H/T Zainab Usman.