Britain has no hope of catching up with China in Africa

A feeble Theresa May in Kenya. EPA/Daniel Irungu

British prime minister Theresa May’s visit to Africa was always going to look rather forlorn. As Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta pointedly reminded her on the very last day of her tour, no British prime minister had visited Kenya for 30 years. Given the British imprisoned Kenyatta’s father during his country’s liberation struggle, it seemed more than a mere irony that the British were suddenly visiting again, but this time to petition African governments for more trade – perhaps in panic on the home stretch of the Brexit negotiations, as it becomes rapidly clear that the sums don’t add up.

This was a desperate plea indeed. Africa could never make up what Britain could lose by way of trade with Europe – not even nearly. May visited three African countries on her trip. In 2016, total UK exports to South Africa amounted to £4.3 billion, while to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa combined, it exported £7.6 billion of goods. British trade to the EU, by contrast, hit £318 billion.

May is proposing a radical reworking of British aid to Africa – aid to develop economies that could interact more strongly with Britain’s, trade more and invest in the British economy. But the Chinese had that idea in 1977.

As he rose to lead China after the Mao Zedong era, Deng Xiaoping set out his Four Modernisations, a policy framework designed to build a huge Chinese economy led by trade with the outside world. The groundwork was to be laid by investment in places such as Africa to make a huge volume of trade possible. In the decades since, the Chinese have gone at it with a vengeance; Britain is now pursuing a similar plan a full 41 years later, and unlike China, it lacks the capacity to significantly upscale its aid efforts.

How do you develop another country’s economy anyway? The Chinese do it with huge infrastructural projects, ensuring that increased productivity can be facilitated by energy supplies and adequate transport, including rail. Britain, meanwhile, is struggling to manage its existing rail infrastructure at home, recently announcing that London’s Crossrail project will be a year late. It’s hard to see a government with problems like these as a serious competitor to China’s road and rail projects in Africa.

Small dreams

On her trip, May herself became a viral sensation by twice attempting to dance. Her nickname, the Maybot, was appropriate to her game but robotic efforts. She seemed stuck in a handful of body movements with absolutely no ability to pivot. And just as she’s stuck in an uncomfortable groove when it comes to Brexit, so she’s stuck in one when it comes to aid.

The notion of using aid to stimulate trade – especially trade of benefit to the aid sender – is as old as the hills. In its cruder forms, it used to be described as “tied aid”. The major beneficiary was meant to be the sender, whose generously donated equipment would need maintenance, repairs and upgrades, and bring in revenue receipts over and above the value of the original donation.

But the Chinese don’t just build build better and faster roads and continental crossrails; they build better computers, better tractors, better agricultural colleges – on site in Africa – and better dams. Of course, they now reap the benefits, as the bounty of their investment in Africa is fed back into their domestic economy.

Xi Jinping hosts the 2018 Beijing Summit Of The Forum On China-Africa Cooperation. EPA/Lintao Zhang

The quickest way to develop Africa is by stimulating industrialisation, not by the pillage of raw materials and minerals. But as soon as Africa produces its full share of manufactured goods, and as soon as they are cheaper than British-made goods, the mood of Britain’s exporters and workers alike quickly will turn sour.

So even if May somehow makes good on her pipe dream, she should be careful what she wishes for. Napoleon warned that China was a sleeping dragon, and the world should be aware of what it could do should it awaken. Perhaps Africa is a sleeping lion. When it awakens, will its dream be to help a Britain that has deserted Europe? No. Its dream will be to develop itself and to impose its own terms.

The Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo has written that aid is dead – that “aid is not working” and that there’s “a better way for Africa”. Her argument glossed over just how hard it will be to move from aid to competitive trade. But however long it takes, there will one day be a tipping point – and if Theresa May is still remembered in the countries she visited, it will be as a British prime minister who misunderstood both Europe and Africa (and couldn’t dance either).