Nothing is more important to sub-Saharan Africa’s future than the growth of China and Chinese industry. The late president of Ethiopia spoke sensibly: China’s “amazing re-emergence” is one of the key reasons for the current success of the “African renaissance”. Former UK prime minister Tony Blair also extols China’s willingness rapidly to put shovels to the projects that the peoples of Africa need. Western donors, he agrees, just cannot act quickly or decisively enough.

China’s gross domestic product growth of 8 percent a year fuels its massive resource input demands. It desperately requires the petroleum, natural gas, coal, uranium, iron ore, platinum, ferrochrome, manganese, nickel, zinc, cadmium, cobalt, coltan, diamonds, tantalum, titanium, timber, and agricultural products that Africa possesses in abundance.

China needs Africa to fuel its continued industrial expansion. Africa in turn welcomes the global rise in commodity prices that has flowed from incessant Chinese demand. This synergy suits both parties and, just as sub-Saharan populations are about to explode, it provides significant, sustainable opportunities for individual African states and their citizens.

Without continued purchases by China, Africa would have no easy way to secure a demographic dividend for its vastly expanding population. According to UN projections, by 2100, Nigeria will follow India and China as the third-largest nation on the planet, with 730 million people. The US will be the fourth-largest, at 420 million, followed – again astonishingly – by impoverished Tanzania, with 316 million, up from today’s 45 million, then by Pakistan and Indonesia, and in eighth place the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, with 212 million, up from today’s 66 million.

Absent China’s factories, and consumer purchases in North America and Europe, sub-Saharan Africa would attract few capital inflows. Only with sustainable resource transfers to China can African’s peoples join the global village with heads held high.

The sinews of China’s increasingly complex relationship with sub-Saharan Africa are extensive and spreading. China has matched its desire to accumulate Africa’s resource riches with a willingness to sell inexpensive consumer goods, provide affordable concessionary loans to countries and corporations, and to construct roads, rails, pipelines, refineries, petro-chemical installations, harbours, hydroelectric dams and facilities, power plants, transmission lines, sports stadiums, political party headquarters, presidential mansions, military barracks, and even a major skyscraper to house the offices of the AU.

There is hardly an African country that has failed to benefit from Chinese largesse. There is a ring road around Nairobi, a long coastal road along southern Lake Malawi, an even longer motorway facilitating trade between Ethiopia and the Sudan, a reconstructed railway from the Congolese Copperbelt to the Angolan coast, a refurbished railway from the Tanzanian coast inland to the heart of Zambia and from Takoradi to Kumasi in Ghana, new or upgraded rail links between Lagos and Ibadan and Lagos and Kano in Nigeria, a toll road from landlocked Addis Ababa to Djibouti; massive new dams in a dozen African countries; an airport in Mauritius; a bulk water supply scheme in Zambia; football facilities in a dozen African states; a military intelligence headquarters in Zimbabwe; and five or six export-processing zones in Ethiopia, Kenya, Mauritius, Zambia, and elsewhere.

No world power has possessed an appetite for Africa and the gifts of Africa equal to China’s today. China is not a coloniser, and seeks influence and mercantile access much more than it seeks political aspirations. It has no hegemonic designs. Nor is its drive ideological or altruistic. There are millions of Chinese in Africa, probably for ever, but China officially is not seeking to settle surplus populations in Africa or to export a Chinese way of life.

China is not in direct competition with Europe, with the US, with Japan, with India, with Brazil or with strong African nations like South Africa for pre-eminence on the African continent. But it does want resources, and it wants highly placed friends who will help China to secure those resources.

Likewise, China’s diplomacy and its foreign assistance programme are intended to support its drive to accumulate resources. China has established embassies in 39 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 49 countries; dispatched military attachés to 14 capitals; created Confucius institutes in several key countries like South Africa (where it has also funded a serious policy think tank); financed the teaching of Mandarin in Kenya, Zimbabwe, and other states; given as many as 18 000 scholarships to Africans for study in China; dispatched 1 500 Chinese doctors to rural Africa; sent peacekeepers to Darfur; sponsored people-to-people and inter-parliamentary exchanges; and so on.

Chinese soft power is as omnipresent as its hard power. Trade between China and Africa has reached $200 billion (R2.19 trillion) a year, more than European or American trade with sub-Saharan Africa. Most of this trade consists of African resource exports, but a mass of cheap Chinese consumer goods are imported as well.

Zambia’s GDP, most of it from copper, is only about $16bn, but $2bn comes from Chinese investments. More than 300 Chinese companies are in Zambia, primarily in the copper sector. But, as Africans complain, those companies often employ as many Chinese as Zambian workers. China’s expansion into Africa has helped to reduce unemployment much less than it might have. Nor have Chinese companies (as the old colonial companies did) been anxious to train locals and transfer technology.

Indeed, China has so far been good for national GDP growth in Africa. But it has contributed too little, say Africans, to reducing inequality. Elites have profited; hardly anything has trickled down to ordinary citizens.

Africans also say that relations between Chinese bosses and African workers are tense. Social relations are weak since Africans note that most Chinese seem to dislike (or fear) them. Traders in many African cities resent Chinese competition.

President Thabo Mbeki warned China that it could not “just come here and dig for raw materials and then go away and sell us manufactured goods”. President Jacob Zuma has praised China, but has cautioned that Africa needs to be careful to ensure sustainability. Partners must be watched closely. China has not been transparent or accountable. It has supported military despotisms. It does not concern itself with the building in Africa of effective political institutions. Nor does it worry about environmental damage. China tends to undermine respect for human rights.

What Africa as a whole or sub-regional organisations like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) need to do, urgently, is to take control of the Chinese tiger. China has been able to play one African country off against another by making an unholy series of bilateral trade arrangements, usually after wining and dining a top leadership cadre. The remedy is multilateral bargaining, by SADC or the East African Community, say, on behalf of all of its members. Doing so could shift the leverage in favour of Africa and, conceivably, in favour of Africans.

If the tide of ties could be altered in that manner, more Chinese-produced wealth could trickle down to the multitude of citizens. They, and their responsible leaders, could also ensure a commodity boom that is sustainable and in Africa’s deep interest, rather than a stripping of assets that may denude Africa before most of its inhabitants benefit. Chinese demand for African goods is essential for African growth, but Africa must do more to harness that demand for the betterment of Africa and Africans.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.