Is China Doomed to Fail in Africa?

This is from Wilson VornDick, a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, writing in the National Interest: 

It is unclear whether China could handle the financial repercussions of a larger, more systemic default or debt-forgiveness program across the African continent. Seeking relief, debtors to China would likely overwhelm existing mechanisms, like international arbitration, or China-backed forums such as the Export-Import Bank of China , China Development Bank , and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank . More importantly, debt restructuring, recoupment, and, in the more extreme case, seizure may not be viable, reasonable, or sustainable for Chinese interests or presence continent-wide. Just such a dire economic scenario might push China to use its nascent military force to protect or even seize its interests. Looking back at the previous period of Great Power Competition more than a century ago, leveraging military might to force repayment was commonplace. The U.S. military made multiple incursions into Caribbean and South American nations as did the Western powers in Africa and Asia.

It is reasonable to assume that China would have little or no experience in any dire economic contagion across Africa. The one primary example, the take-over of Hambantota Port, was an isolated incident during calmer times, before the financial uncertainty stoked by a slowing global economy or the current U.S.-China trade war. Moreover, the port takeover has now become a watershed moment in Chinese behavior that has attracted significant international scrutiny and ire.

More broadly, VornDick articulates the potential merits (from a U.S. standpoint) of a “Let China Fail in Africa” strategy as part of Washington’s Great Power global competition with Beijing. The whole argument is worth a read.

A glaring omission in VornDick’s analysis, however, is the interests and roles of Africans in this whole game (note that this is a gap in the “China-in-Africa” genre more generally).

chinafricaA key weakness that I see in the “Let China Fail in Africa” strategy is that it vastly underestimates the extent to which Africans will be willing to work hand in hand with China to make the Sino-African relationship work.

China’s forays in Africa is creating complex tapestries of personal and institutional relationships that will become ever harder to undo. For example, in both electoral democracies and autocracies in the region, citizens have come to expect political elites to provide public goods — many of them financed and built by China. Demands for more of the same will likely only get stronger. The desire to secure funding for more public goods will likely push African elites even closer to Beijing. Furthermore, at a time when the U.S. is working hard to signal that Africans are not welcome on its shores, tens of thousands of African students are earning degrees in Chinese universities. Many of these students will probably go back to their respective countries and maintain ties with Chinese business and academic contacts. These kinds of investments in soft power will matter in the long run.

Global diplomacy is not just about crass material interests. It is also about values and shared commitments to respectful mutual cooperation. If African elites become convinced that they are better off bandwagoning with China, they will do so.

And most importantly, having made that choice, they will make specific investments (whether deliberately or not) to make their nations ever more closely allied with China. They will adopt specific technologies. Establish specific market relationships. Acquire specific weapons systems. And yes, more of their students will learn Chinese and go on to earn degrees in China. The closer the military, economic and “soft” ties, the more African elites will be willing to make costly investments in order to ensure that their respective states’ relationships with China work.

A good lesson in this regard is francafrique. The relationship between France and its former colonies in Africa is not winning any awards soon. But for almost six decades African elites have remained committed to the relationship and worked to give the French military free rein in the region and French firms access to vast natural resources. The French state, in turn, has worked to prop up the same elites despite massive economic and political failings.

The point is: China’s failure in Africa (if it comes to pass) is not what will determine the future of Sino-African relations. What happens before any such failure will likely matter more.

Fact of the Week: 30% of Shanghai residents are over 60

….. Shanghai has a particular problem: last year, says China Daily, it became the first city in China to pass the crippling 30 per cent mark for population aged over 60. That’s nearly twice the 15.5 per cent for over 60 population nationally in 2014, the last year for which national figures are available.

That is a lot of senior citizens. For more see this FT piece on how the state in China is trying to force children to take care of their aging parents — including using threats to deny them library access, credit, and bank accounts.

HT Howard French

Kenya’s Milk Consumption is the Highest in the Developing World

Last year the French company Danone (maker of Activia yogurt) bought a 40% stake in the Kenyan dairy firm Brookside, a sign of the growing importance of the dairy market in the wider eastern Africa region. But the story doesn’t end with the big household names. Smallholder farmers are also getting a piece of the dairy bonanza in Kenya:


HT Sarora Dairies

On a related note, here is how a company in China is helping industrialize the country’s dairy sector:

A milk scandal erupted in China in 2008 when the industrial chemical melamine was found in dairy products nationwide. While many Chinese dairy companies faced huge losses or bankruptcy as a result, one small firm, Dairy United, accelerated its development. Dairy United is one of the fastest-growing and most innovative Chinese dairy producers, one that features an unusual organizational structure and business model. Unlike most corporate and cooperative dairies that purchase cows on the market, Dairy United leases dairy cows from local farmers, giving it access to its primary asset without a large up-front investment, and letting the firm grow its dairy herds with newborn heifers. In return, farmers receive fixed payments biannually, but relinquish control rights and residual claims to the firm. Thus, Dairy United’s leasing is helping transform Chinese milk production from a backyard, labor-intensive activity to a more industrialized mode of farming. The case is particularly interesting for understanding applications of agency theory in agribusiness.

That is according to a new paper in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics (which I hope chaps at the Ministry of Agriculture in Nairobi subscribe to).

Where do the poor live, and how do we make them become middle class?

The Economist reports:

“WHERE do the world’s poor live? The obvious answer: in poor countries. But in a recent series of articles Andy Sumner of Britain’s Institute of Development Studies showed that the obvious answer is wrong. Four-fifths of those surviving on less than $2 a day, he found, live in middle-income countries with a gross national income per head of between $1,000 and $12,500, not poor ones. His finding reflects the fact that a long but inequitable period of economic growth has lifted many developing countries into middle-income status but left a minority of their populations mired in poverty. Since the countries involved include giants like China and India, even a minority amounts to a very large number of people. That matters because middle-income countries can afford to help their own poor.”

The article raises important issues that inform the debate on how to tackle problems of poverty and underdevelopment – is it all about politics & governance or all about economic expansion? The answer, of course is that it is a moderate mix of both.

But since political realities often force governments to concentrate on one or the other, a responsible answer is that it is all context-dependent; some places need strong economic expansion first, before political reforms can be anchored in society. In others, political change should be top of the checklist.

The Botswanas and Singapores of this world are lucky in that their leaders were smart enough to know what their countries needed and pursued it with singular ambition, despite the unavoidable mess that came with the choices they made.

This of course goes against the received wisdom among academics (me included) who believe in the strong power of the right types of (liberal, in the classical sense) institutions to put countries on the path to becoming Denmark. The problem with this approach is that it does not tell us how to compress the more than 600 years that transpired between the Magna Carta and the voting reform legislations in England in the latter part of the 19th century. Lest we forget, England (which is every scholar’s favorite source of empirical conceptualization of institutional development) has not always had good institutions.

Institutions take a lot of time to build. A lot more time than the average human life span.

So the question still stands: How do we get the most number of people out of poverty in the least amount of time with the least harm to their political and human rights?

More on this here.