- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2018

China is pushing back at U.S. allegations that Beijing is a predatory lender bent on saddling Africa with debt to gain political influence over the continent and drain it of natural resources and precious metals.

Chinese loans leave African sovereignty “unscathed,” argued a report Thursday by a media outlet of China’s ruling Communist party, which cited analysts as claiming it’s Western — not Chinese — institutions that saddle Africa with debt for political and material gain.

The assertions, in a report by the Global Times newspaper, came as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held talks Thursday with several top North African and Mideast diplomats to discuss Chinese investment in their nations.

The state-run Xinhua news service framed the talks as progress toward the westward expansion of China’s fast-moving One Belt One Road initiative, through which Beijing has spent recent years pumping cash into infrastructure projects around Asia.

U.S. officials say the initiative has positive aspects, but caution that China is using it to buy access to resources wherever it can, with Beijing’s sites increasingly set on oil-rich but economically underdeveloped nations throughout the African continent.

In March, when then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Africa and met with heads of state in Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria, he made China’s growing influence on the continent a core focus of his trip.

At the time, Trump administration and senior State Department officials lamented during a background call with reporters that China is among a handful of nations offering up easy access and questionable financial loans to several African countries in exchange for easy access to their resources.

“A lot of countries in southern Africa and parts of the east and west are having anywhere from 50 percent to, in one case, 200 percent of GDP debt,” one of the officials claimed. “Fifty percent are probably Chinese loans, and that’s really not acceptable, and that’s an area that we really need to address and focus on.”

The official, who noted that Africa is projected to form 40 percent of the world’s population by 2100, went on to argue that Washington’s goal is to get African nations “off of debt” in the post-colonial era. “To see these countries re-indebted again [is] outrageous and terrible,” the official said.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alice G. Wells more recently expressed concern about China’s One Belt One Road initiative in an interview with The Washington Times, arguing that the initiative “lacks transparency and sustainability” and is saddling some nations with “predatory debt.”

While Ms. Wells said the U.S. needs a positive vision for countering China’s development push with more robust democracy- and capitalism-driven aid programs, her comments about Beijing’s lending underscored concern in Washington about Chinese expansion on the global geopolitical stage.

The article published Thursday by China’s Global Times newspaper did not explicitly address the assertions that have been made by U.S. officials. Instead, it homed in on a recent CNN report on an analysis by Harvard University scholars, that claimed Beijing has targeted more than a dozen nations with “debtbook diplomacy” designed to gain political leverage over those nations.

“This phrase ‘debtbook diplomacy’ shows the West is nervous of China-Africa cooperation,” the Global Times article quoted Chinese analyst Wang Yiwei as saying.

“‘Debtbook diplomacy’ is what [Western powers] did to Africa for decades, but now China is actually helping African nations rid themselves of ‘the debt trap’ set by the West,” said Mr. Wang, who heads the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

“Western countries wanted Africa to become their raw materials supplier while maintaining their post-colonial influence over the continent,” he said, arguing that China is now helping the nations move toward self-reliance and industrialization and has never forced African countries to accept loans on large infrastructure projects beyond those countries’ ability to pay.

The West doesn’t like that and this is why it is attempting to slander China, Mr. Wang added, according to Global Times, which also quoted Chinese analyst Xu Weizhong as claiming that “Africa needs a lot of investment to build infrastructure, and China’s loans, which have increased African countries’ debt, are necessary for their development.”

The article also claimed that Western powers currently hold more African debt than anyone else, citing Chinese and U.S. data to claim that Chinese loans worth some $114 billion to Africa from 2000-2016 account for about 1.8 percent of the continent’s total external debt, while the World Bank and International Monetary Fund comparatively own roughly 36 percent of African debt.

Despite criticizing China’s lending, the State Department official who spoke with reporters in March, said the U.S. and China have a “very complex relationship” when it comes to Africa and stressed that the Trump administration seeks to “make China much more supportive of the overall development” on the continent.

“We have a lot of areas and issues that we’re in conflict, but the issue comes in is that we’re trying to find the areas where we can build some type of support and cooperation that will be to the betterment of Africa,” the official said. “China builds things we don’t construct.”

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