2018 has seen the rapid popularization of a motif in Western discussions of China-Africa relations. Over the last month or so, The Diplomat, The Guardian, and CNN among other major international media outlets have all published articles warning about China’s strategic “debtbook diplomacy” along the Belt and Road. Discussions of China strategically using debt to boost its influence drew a lot of attention early in 2018 due to comments by then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The term “debtbook diplomacy” gained additional traction by the wide circulation of a report by Sam Parker and Gabrielle Chefitz, this week’s guests on the China in Africa Podcast.
Debt sustainability in Africa is a key concern. The continent still carries the scars of its previous bout with international lenders, which led to the massively disruptive structural adjustment programs of the 1980s. The story of how Sri Lanka lost control of its Hambantota port after being unable to repay its Chinese loan raised worries about the impact of debt on sovereignty across Africa. However, many Western accounts of a consistent and strategic Chinese planting of debt in order to gain over other countries demand more rigorous academic unpacking. We need to see whether the Sri Lanka case is really being repeated in other places, and what the interactions are between different Chinese actors (state banks, contractors, the government) in these cases.
One of the questions that the Western media accounts of “debtbook diplomacy” do not ask is what is the price for poor countries of not taking loans? Many poor countries have limited funding options, and the alternative is systemic underdevelopment, which carries its own dangers – increasing youth radicalization and a continued flood of economic migrants to places like Europe. The issue of debt can’t only be seen in terms of a Western power calculus – we also have to see it from the perspective of Africa’s future.