China Condemns ‘Carping’ from U.S. Officials on African Debt Traps

At a regular press briefing on Dec. 12, 2016, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang expresses "serious concern" about U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's remarks suggesting the United States need not adhere to its long-held position on the status of Taiwan under his incoming administration. (Kyodo via AP Images) ==Kyodo
Kyodo via AP Images

The State Department’s concerted effort to highlight predatory lending and military expansion by Beijing’s Communist Party has triggered stern condemnation from China’s foreign ministry and state media, both of which have urged the international community to ignore Washington’s “carping” on the issue.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, currently on a regional trip to Africa, warned in a talk Monday that Beijing’s imposition of unwieldy debts on African nations participating in China’s global “One Belt, One Road” economic project serves to “undermine sovereignty” and seriously threatens the stability of the region.

“African countries and people are the most qualified to evaluate China-Africa cooperation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters on Wednesday. “China sincerely welcomes other members of the international community to increase input to help Africa, and developed countries in particular should fulfill their promises to Africa.”

Geng’s boss, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, echoed the sentiment at a press event on Thursday. “As we work together for a community with a shared future for humanity, African brothers and sisters are welcome to get on board China’s fast train of development,” he encouraged. “Africa’s concerns are China’s concerns. Africa’s priorities are China’s priorities.”

He went on to call theories that China’s economy would burst under its own weight “an international laughingstock” and dismiss the “China threat theory”—a term for anyone warning that the totalitarian communist regime poses a threat to the world—as “sensational” and increasingly unpopular.

The Global Times, a state-run newspaper, published a story Thursday that took his remarks further, titled “FM: Ignore U.S. carping about Africa.”

The story quotes Geng and cites several “experts” dismissing claims that China’s burdensome loans in Africa, backed by natural resource collateral, could lead to China controlling and exploiting the resources of the continent at the African people’s expense.

“The U.S. is losing confidence in healthy competition with China,” one expert said, arguing that China and Africa are complimentary, while “the U.S. doesn’t have too many products to supply to the African market, so the U.S. competitiveness is weaker than that of China.”

Another expert suggested that concerns about China’s first permanent overseas base in Djibouti, where the United States also maintains a significant military presence, are “pointless.”

In his posture General Thomas Waldhauser for U.S. Africa Command published this week, General Thomas Waldhauser warned that the U.S. is continuing to monitor Chinese development in Djibouti. A House Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa hearing this week also discussed the millions in that nation’s debt that China currently possesses, worth about 60 percent of Djibouti’s GDP. A default on that debt could yield unparalleled control over the country for China.

China “encourages dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them their long-term, self-sustaining growth,” Tillerson warned this week.

Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Don Yamamoto made similar remarks prior to Tillerson leaving for Ethiopia this week, noting that the United States invested heavily in easing the major debt burdens that many African countries face before China began resaddling these nations with large debts. Many of these debts are incurred as a part of the “One Belt, One Road” program, meant to finance roads, rail projects, and ports.

China’s growing presence in Africa has triggered unease among political observers. Columnists in African newspaper have complained of China treating their countries in a patronizing manner, using diplomatic language that makes it appear impossible for African countries to reach full development without the aid of the benevolent Chinese. They have also expressed concerns about importing too many products from China that can be produced at home, and that Chinese political figures have begun meddling too deeply in their domestic affairs.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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