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06 Mar 2013

Final frontier: China widens outlook

David Gardner

by David Gardner

Managing Director, Global Head of Project and Export Finance, HSBC

A metal worker in China

By helping to finance infrastructure in Africa, China is in a strong position to benefit from increased trade

Greek tragedies, US fiscal cliffs and eurozone woes mean that much of the developed world is offering anaemic growth prospects for 2013. Given this backdrop China is understandably looking at building trade levels with emerging nations. In addition to the fellow BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies, China has for a number of years now been turning its attention to the frontier markets of Africa.

Countries such as Angola and Nigeria offer the attraction of untapped commodity resources and large working-age populations.

China's growing interest in Africa is already bearing fruit. In 2000 US trade with Africa was three times that of China. However, in 2009 China overtook the US to become Africa's biggest trading partner, with China and Hong Kong accounting for 13.5 per cent of African merchandising trade, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria's Finance Minister, said recently that trade and investment flows between Africa and the BRIC economies would expand and boost growth as global uncertainty continued in 2013 and developed economies struggled.

Countries such as Angola and Nigeria offer the attraction of untapped commodity resources and large working-age populations

Spending on improved infrastructure in Africa – notably in power generation, road and rail will be the key elements driving economic growth across the continent and the BRIC nations are playing a significant role in this process.

By helping to finance infrastructure in Africa, China is in a strong position to benefit from increased trade from growing economies such as Nigeria, Angola, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa. It is more than just loans that China is offering Africa. China frequently provides the technical expertise and, where required, the manpower to ensure major infrastructure and housing projects progress.

However, the number of Chinese workers in Africa has been a thorny issue. Concerns were raised recently by African heads of state at the 2012 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing. The Chinese agreed to a localisation policy, employing and training local workers where possible.

Opinion is divided as to whether investment should be driven internally, rather than from overseas, but positive comments from African leaders indicate broad support for loans from China. The loans available from institutions such as the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China are attractive to many African governments because of their low cost, large volumes and relatively quick delivery times. Such financing is not available on the same terms from the traditional US and European trading partners. As Abdoulaye Wade, the former President of Senegal, points out: "The Chinese are ready to take up the task, more rapidly and at less cost".

One example of the availability of Chinese funds is the Bui Dam under construction in Ghana. In 2005, at a time when Ghana's traditional funding sources from Europe and the US had all but dried up, the Chinese company SinoHydro offered to build the dam backed by a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China. The financing package was accepted by the government and construction commenced in 2008. There is further proof of China's presence in Africa with new roads, housing, factories and ports all over the continent. The Kenyan superhighway linking Nairobi with Thika and development of key ports such as Dar es Salaam in Tanzania are good examples.

There are considerable benefits for China, including satisfying the demand of its domestic economy for natural resources. African housing and infrastructure programmes also provide employment opportunities for migrant Chinese workers.

One of the most ambitious projects is in Angola where the Chinese are financing and building a new city at Nova Cidade de Kilamba. At a reported cost of USD3.5 billion, Kilamba was paid for with an oil-backed loan in which Angola supplies China with oil over an agreed term in return for credit.

Such deals have been criticised by some Western powers, notably the US, who suggest that Chinese investment in Africa is primarily motivated by Beijing's desire to access the continent's abundant natural resources.

In 2012 Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, went as far to say that some African nations should consider partnerships with more "responsible" countries.

However, African countries sometimes lack the skills and engineering capacity to construct large-scale projects or the capital to undertake them. Chinese support helps these projects get off the ground.

There are parallels between China's approach to Africa today and the way its own development was financed 30 years ago.

In the 1970s China was determined to develop infrastructure, technology and manufacturing but with little in the way of foreign exchange with which to do it. The solution was to open Chinese natural resources, specifically oil and coal, to Japan in return for a USD10 billion loan. Africa is following a similar path, aware that some compromise is necessary for greater development and economic wealth.

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