China's 'Palace Diplomacy' in Africa: Who Gains, Who Loses?


Relations with African countries are being strengthened in various ways. Chinafile photo: Reuters


China's 'Palace Diplomacy' in Africa: Who Gains, Who Loses?( )

China has been trying to strengthen relations with African countries for several years. Beijing is building or renovating government buildings in various African countries at its own expense. Some foreign policy experts have dubbed this Beijing strategy 'palace diplomacy'.( )

Al-Jazeera published an analysis of China's 'palace diplomacy' in African countries. The context of Zimbabwe came at the beginning of the analysis. It is said that the country's new parliament building was inaugurated in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, on June 30. China managed and financed the construction of the building. Beijing gave it as a gift to Harare.

Built on an area of ​​33,000 square meters, this infrastructure has a six-storey office complex, rooms for members of parliament and staff. Zimbabwe's Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said the new building is a symbol of the deepening relationship between Harare and Beijing.( )

Not only Zimbabwe, since the beginning of the new millennium, several countries including Mozambique, Lesotho, Guinea-Bissau, Malawi have built new parliament buildings courtesy of China.

Similarly, Burundi's presidential palace has also been built by China. The construction of the building was completed in 2019 at a cost of 2 million dollars. The same year, the Liberian government expanded the country's parliament building. China donates to this work. A leadership training center was recently inaugurated in Tanzania. Beijing has supported the construction of this center.( )

Is Africa benefiting?

According to a 2020 study by the Heritage Foundation, a Washington DC-based think tank, there are at least 186 government buildings on the African continent that have been more or less financed by China. Over the past two decades, the number of such construction projects has grown rapidly as China's economy has become much stronger.( )

These 'gifts' are commonplace for many Africans. They do not consider it harmful. Jinghan Zeng, professor of China and international studies at Lancaster University in the UK, agrees with this view. He told Al-Jazeera that the African region needs a lot of infrastructure. But they don't have the money to build these infrastructures. Taking advantage of this opportunity, China is engaging in the so-called palace diplomacy by building large buildings in Africa.( )

Some analysts say that because of these big projects, the image of African leaders in their own countries is shining. Because they are visible, they are considered symbols of progress. And African governments often present these expensive projects as their achievements.( )

Ebenezer Obadre, a senior fellow for Africa studies at the US think tank Council on Foreign Relations, told Al-Jazeera that on paper Chinese projects are beneficial to the African public. In many cases there is evidence of it.( )

But Obadre thinks there is a problem in this case. That is, transparency is not always maintained in the negotiation-negotiation of such projects. In some projects, it has been found that the amount allocated is not required at all. But whether China will be solely responsible for that is a different question.

Vaso Njendze, associate professor of politics and international relations at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, said the true significance of these gifts remains unknown. This is because Chinese investment agreements in the African continent are generally ambiguous.

The Chinese Agenda

In 2018, a report by the French daily La Monde said that China was trying to access the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa to listen to state secrets. China gifted this headquarters to the African Union five years ago.( )

The African Union and the Chinese government denied the report. But it is widely known outside the African continent, and even beyond, that Beijing is not always candid about its deals.

Obadare of the Council on Foreign Relations said the African Union should have properly monitored the headquarters project while it was underway, so that nothing untoward could happen.

Some say that the Chinese espionage incident did not make as much noise on the African continent as it was supposed to. Nzendze, a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, said Chinese and African officials jointly tried to present the incident as a fabrication. Another concern is the French revelation that Chinese authorities are spying in Africa.( )

Ordinary citizens in some African countries have already started criticizing China's presence on the continent. There have been years of protests in countries like Zambia and Malawi over the working conditions of these Chinese projects.( )

In June 2022, the then Deputy President of Kenya, William Ruto, promised that the details of his government's deal with China would be disclosed. He made the announcement in the face of intense discontent among locals over Chinese loans. He later won the presidential election.

Geopolitical implications

There is much talk about how Beijing is benefiting in the long term from investing in the African continent. According to experts, the primary purpose of China's various initiatives is to expand Beijing's geopolitical influence on the African continent. Reducing the influence of rivals like the US and Europe on the continent.( )

John McCauley, an associate professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland in the United States, said that although China's financing of infrastructure construction in Africa is apparently considered a sign of friendship, it has a political side.

McCauley said that the position of African countries has changed on the issue of Taiwan and the South China Sea. Studies have shown that when China's influence in a region increases, the influence of the United States decreases. In fact, some African countries are reluctant to criticize China in the UN Human Rights Council.( )

Diplomatic influence alone is not the last word. China's economic interests in Africa continue to expand. According to data from the Chinese Customs Administration, trade between China and Africa reached a record $25,400 billion in 2021 despite the coronavirus pandemic, which is nearly four times the trade between the United States and Africa.( )

Zeng, a teacher at Lancaster University in the UK, believes that this trend of trade expansion between China and Africa may continue. He said the level of competition in Africa for Chinese companies is relatively low. But if we think beyond this economic dimension, Africa is an important partner for China to expand its influence in the international arena.

Read more from China ( )

Geopolitics, Diplomatic relations, Africa, China, South Africa, Diplomacy  ( )

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