/ 17 February 2023

Janet Yellen’s African trip fans the flames of the ‘debt trap’ narrative

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US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen meets with President of Zambia Hakainde Hichilema during the US - Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

In January 2023, the United States secretary of the treasury, Janet Yellen, visited Senegal, South Africa and Zambia during a 10-day visit to the African continent. 

The trip was linked to the US-Africa Leaders Summit that had taken place from 13 to 15 December 2022 in Washington, DC. Delegations from 49 African countries that were invited and the African Union, alongside members of civil society and the private sector, attended the summit. 

One thing that Yellen could not side-step was the role of China in Africa’s economy. This was underscored during her visit to Zambia, a country that has a historical, if chequered, relationship with China.

It is in Zambia, perhaps more than in any other country on the African continent, that China’s footprint in Africa is hotly debated. Zambia’s huge external debt, with a considerable chunk being China’s, has been the cynosure of the debt trap narrative. Yellen described China as a barrier to Zambia’s debt situation — one that had “taken far too long already to resolve”. 

What is debt trap diplomacy? What are the motives and implications of Western (read American) interests in debt trap diplomacy? What is the veracity of Chinese debt in Africa?

In January 2017, Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research came up with the notion of debt trap diplomacy. He argued that through “its $1 trillion ‘one belt, one road’ initiative, China is supporting infrastructure projects in strategically located developing countries, often by extending huge loans to their governments. As a result, countries are becoming ensnared in a debt trap that leaves them vulnerable to China’s influence.” 

Admitting that dispensing loans for infrastructure is not immanently bad, Chellaney nevertheless argues that “the projects that China is supporting are often intended not to support the local economy, but to facilitate Chinese access to natural resources, or to open the market for its low-cost and shoddy export goods”. 

Six years after Chellaney’s pioneering piece in Project Syndicate, the debt trap diplomacy narrative has taken on a life of its own and it has the most powerful proponent in the US. Institutions such as the International Republican Institute have dedicated entire reports to warn the developing world about China’s “malign influence”. The implication is that, through debt entrapment, the developing world will not only be colonially beholden to China but will also be importing some of China’s traits that the West finds unsavoury. The foregoing is the pith of what has become to be known as debt trap diplomacy. It has gathered so much momentum, been discussed so extensively that many people do not even know who Brahma Chellaney is. 

What then are the motives and implications of Western interests in debt trap diplomacy? The motive seems to be clear. Since the end of World War II, the US enjoyed the peerless position at the pinnacle of the international system. This was in many telling spheres such as economics, military, security, knowledge production and technology. The Soviet Union could not compete on such matters, save for some ideological adherence from the developing world and China. Thus, on many indices of international dominance, the Soviet Union did not come close to rivalling the US. 

China, on the other hand, poses a much bigger challenge. Its economy has been growing at the rate of 10% for three decades up to the early 2010s. Still on economics, the US and China are heavily wedded, with trade between them reaching $690.6 billion in 2022. This impressive number comes on the back of deteriorating relations between the foremost global economies, characterised by the trade war that started in 2018. 

Since coming to power Xi Jinping made pronouncements about bolstering China’s military profile and raising an army that can not only fight in, but win, wars. This will come into sharp relief after the United States shot down a Chinese balloon travelling over the US, claiming it was used for spying. Unsurprisingly, Beijing has denied the accusation. 

In terms of technology, Chinese leviathans such as Huawei are making headways in the developing world, with Africa being of strategic importance. The continent is teeming with young people eager to consume technology. Only 3% of Africans are above the age of 65. Thus, US President Joe Biden is right in stating that Africa will shape not just the future of the African people, but of the world and that “Africa’s success is the world’s success”. The World Economic Forum has asserted that “Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region that will continue to see growth by century’s end”. 

Thus, any country with designs to have a telling say in the 21st century and thereafter has to master and export its technology — with Africa being a partner of choice. As a country that has hitherto enjoyed dominance in this respect, how would one expect the US to hail a China that is elbowing its way in this important arena?

Most importantly for China’s rise, and to the US’s discomfiture, is the force of numbers that China can call upon. With more than 1.4 billion people, China has a bigger population than the entire African continent and has more than four times the US’s population. 

What this shows is that even though the US is not in terminal decline, it is destined to be outstripped by China in important aspects. How, once again, would one expect the US to appraise these inexorable realities? It would appear that the US’s motives are to maintain American preeminence in world affairs with a relentless campaign to diminish China’s allure. This is driven by many factors — one being what Henry Kissinger describes as the “missionary” instinct in US foreign policy. This is an instinct that believes in the universality of American values. 

China presents a different set of political and cultural values that seem to have a relativist orientation. There is concern, therefore, that a relentlessly growing China might convert countries of the developing world to China’s orbit — whether compelled by large volumes of debt, as Chellaney argues, or by mere appreciation of China’s rise and how it can be an archetype for countries that have similar circumstances to those of China before its take-off. The US’s motive, then, boils down to maintaining tenancy of the pole position in world affairs.

What, then, about the second part of the second question — the implications of Western warnings about debt trap diplomacy? Whether there is a Republican or Democrat administration in the US, keeping China away from the perch of global affairs seems to be inalterable. Successive secretaries of state, from Hillary Clinton and Rex Tillerson to Antony Blinken have weighed in on what could be characterised as China’s baneful presence and growing influence in Africa. 

Mike Pence, the former US vice-president under Donald Trump, and William Barr,  attorney general under presidents George Bush and Trump, also made references to China’s alleged malevolence in the developing world. Yellen is only the last of the long list of prominent Americans directly urging Africa to be wary of its relationship with China. There are undertones to this pontification that Americans seem to be oblivious of. To give a fuller context on why the US might be losing its argument, one has to look at US-Africa relations from a historical perspective. 

During the Cold War, Africa was only important to Western powers in their fight against the spread of socialism. To ensure this, the US was ready to humour South African apartheid and the rebel regime of Ian Smith in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) based only on the fact that they were capitalist systems. The same could be said about support for Mobutu Sese Seko’s corrupt and repressive regime in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the rebel movement of Unita in Angola. One cannot compute the damage that was done to the African continent from these subversive, immoral and, yes, racist, choices. 

Thus, although there might be merit in some of America’s pronouncements, the taint of history seems to colour Africa’s reception of these sentiments. Second, an indirect message that the US seems to send, and for which it has largely drawn Africa’s noncommittal response, is the implication that the continent, left on its own, cannot decide who it relates with and on what terms. An apocryphal quote attributed to an unnamed Kenyan official sums up the manner of engagements that Africa shares with the West and China: “Every time China visits, we get a hospital; every time Britain visits, we get a lecture.” Britain, in this sense, could be taken to represent the West’s general relationship with Africa. 

The West, and the US in particular, has opportunities for fruitful and respectful engagement with both Africa and China. Treating Africa as a childlike player, devoid of rational choice, will only drive Africa away from the West. If Africa is being ensnared in debt to China, whose responsibility is it? Africa is not a passive party to its international treaties and obligations. Zambia, the country from which Yellen made some of her remarks, has shown great agency in its relationship with China — almost bordering on overt xenophobia. 

With its shortcomings, China’s endearing characteristic seems to be its modesty on foreign policy pronouncements — the proclivity to be understood and recognised rather than to export its values or, to use Barr’s words, “to make the world safe for dictatorship”. When compelled to choose between the two prospective partners — one bearing a tome of instruction and another seeking a strictly-business approach — who would Africa be more comfortable with? Thus, although there might be some defensible aspect to US warnings, they are diluted by the attitude that seems to ignore Africa’s assertiveness and the capacity to calculate what relations are beneficial to the continent. 

Finally, what is the veracity to the claim of debt trap diplomacy? Deborah Brautigam, a Bernard L Schwartz professor of international political economy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and Meg Rithmire, who is an F Warren McFarlan associate professor at Harvard Business School, concluded that debt trap diplomacy is “a lie, and a powerful one”. 

The China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at Johns Hopkins, for which Brautigam is the founding director, has been tracking China’s loans to Africa. The institute is an authority on the matter and its findings contradict the allegations of debt trap diplomacy. A report by CARI established “that between 2000 and 2019, China … cancelled at least $3.4 billion of debt in Africa”. In the same period China had restructured or refinanced about $15 billion of debt in Africa. There were no asset seizures, and China had not used legal recourses to compel repayments. 

In the final analysis, this may change subject to the quantum of debt that some bankrupt African countries might contract and then fail to repay. As things stand, however, US warnings about debt trap appear as though they are protestations of a power, desperate to maintain its slipping dominance. There are ways through which the West can avoid inadvertently driving Africa into a deeper relationship with China. The first is to compute and keep in mind the many varieties of debt that Africa owes to national and private players, and the terms thereof. 

The second is to take as given the fact that Africans have the rational facility to calculate their international relations and obligations and that a preachy tone is the least the continent needs. 

Third, the West could try to explore opportunities for cooperating with China in Africa. Indeed, from cooperation could emerge opportunities for positive influence. An inflexibly hostile stance towards China could have negative effects on the West and its presence in the rest of the world. It’s the US’s choice. 

Emmanuel Matambo is a research director at the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS), University of Johannesburg.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.