Wednesday, September 5, 2018

US Should be Worried Over China's Actions Towards African Nations


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This week, China hosted leaders from across Africa for a summit in Beijing. The last summit was held in December 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa, where Chinese President Xi Jinping announced $60 billion in funding support for infrastructure development in Africa.

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation included an eye-popping announcement of billions of dollars more in Chinese financing to build infrastructure across the continent. But these massive loans can come with steep and opaque conditions.

It’s tempting for Americans to think this is not our problem. But as African countries sink deeper and deeper into Beijing’s carefully laid debt trap, the United States could pay a steep cost in reduced cooperation on counterterrorism and job creation.

Chinese debt has become the methamphetamines of infrastructure finance: highly addictive, readily available, and with long-term negative effects that far outweigh any temporary high. This is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa, where China has become the largest provider of bilateral loans.

Forty percent of sub-Saharan African countries are already at high risk of debt distress; by having so much debt concentrated in the hands of a single lender, they are dangerously beholden to their supplier.

Why does this matter? Because in Africa and elsewhere, governments have secured massive loans from Beijing using strategic assets—such as oil, minerals, and land rights— as collateral. If borrower nations find themselves unable to repay the loan, China can claim the strategic asset.

Sri Lanka recently learned this the hard way and handed over control of the port of Hambantota, giving China a strategic foothold along a busy trade waterway.

According to Professor Brahma Chellaney at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, “several other countries, from Argentina to Namibia to Laos, have been ensnared in a Chinese debt trap, forcing them to confront agonizing choices in order to stave off default.”

While Chinese debt diplomacy may not seem relevant to most Americans, it is a serious threat to US national security. Most directly, China’s crafty negotiations and seizure of strategic assets can limit US influence and access overseas.

For instance, the tiny country of Djibouti is home to the most significant American military base in Africa. Thanks to Chinese loans, Djibouti’s debt-to-GDP ratio surged from 50 to 85 percent between 2014 and 2016. If Djibouti were to default and relinquish the port that resupplies the US base, American military capability in Africa and the Middle East could be seriously threatened.

More broadly, unsustainable levels of debt can destabilize African states, which also compromises American security interests. Over-leveraged governments can get caught in a downward spiral of credit downgrades, reckless economic policies, and reduced spending on social services. With economic stagnation comes fewer opportunities for Africa’s fast-growing and young economy.

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