China’s espionage scandal blow for ties with Africa

Huda al-Husseini
Huda al-Husseini
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The war of spies between countries never ends; a notable example being recent developments between the UK and Russia. It’s true there is little cordiality between the two countries at present, but even spying on friendly states is a necessity of “national security.” Countries always deny accusations of espionage even when there is clear evidence.

For instance, African Union (AU) countries learnt quite a lesson last year but they may not fully comprehend it because the other involved party is China. Last month, a detailed report revealed that China has been downloading sensitive information from the AU’s database for over a period of five years. The expose has led to a tense and embarrassing phase in China-Africa relations because both parties have often claimed that their political and economic partnership is based on mutual respect and trust. The recent incident in which Chinese agents are accused of infiltrating the African Union’s headquarters raises plenty of questions about the future of relations between China and some African countries.

China has strongly denied these claims while initial media reports voiced some African leaders’ anger. However, the AU’s official response has so far been in line with China’s. The Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement that the report about its alleged espionage is an attempt by Western powers to sow discord, adding that this will not affect the strong ties it has with Africa. China’s ambassador to the African Union dismissed the “absurd” spying claims but acknowledged they will create problems for African-Chinese relations.

The AU’s stance clarifies deep-rooted issues in its commercial and economic ties with the global power, China, as this scandal threatens to undermine the economic power and performance of the AU and Africa as a whole.

This political turmoil regarding China’s alleged spying surfaced in January 2018 when the French Le Monde newspaper published a report about China stealing secret data from the AU Headquarters. According to the report, AU officials discovered a year ago that sensitive information was being downloaded from the AU’s computers and transferred to Beijing every night, ever since the headquarters was built. Although surveillance bugs and microphones were found hidden in desks and the walls, the AU had kept silent until Le Monde’s report was published.

China built the AU’s headquarters in 2012 in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa for $200 million and actually brought construction material for that purpose from China. Many observers believe these developments mean China-Africa relations will decline, but economic and political partnership will continue.

There has been increased economic interdependence between China and Africa, so if any party decides to weaken ties, the economic performance of both sides will be affected adversely. For instance, China has made massive investments in Africa over the past decade. During the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation in South Africa in 2015, China pledged to allocate $60 billion for development projects across Africa. Bilateral trade estimates reached $149 billion in 2016.

China has also made security contributions in some trouble-hit areas like South Sudan. Natural resources are the main reason China sought to establish stronger political and economic ties with Africa. Therefore, losing access to these resources or even facing obstructions may hinder China’s role as the largest manufacturer in the world. Getting access to oil in Nigeria and Angola and to cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo makes it important for China to have strong ties with Africa so it maintains its status as an economic power. However, it’s worrisome that China provided everything which the African Union needs, from cement to furniture, and used these “gifts” to spy, especially as it seeks to support construction projects across Eurasia for its One Belt One Road Initiative.

African leaders opened their doors to China’s generosity mainly because of their suspicion of Western powers which colonized them and meddled in their affairs. African countries benefitted from China’s foreign policy which does not interfere in their affairs and from China’s low-interest loans. Therefore, these leaders may think the ties deserve this price, i.e. a little Chinese surveillance in exchange. Such a position, however, shows that the partnership between China and Africa is afflicted with an imbalance of power.

China realizes this fact so it has reiterated its respect for the AU’s sovereignty and has expressed hope that it will resume its investments. Behind closed doors, Chinese officials made promises to their African counterparts to increase investment and not to intervene in their affairs. This is simply the “behind closed doors” policy which China adopts. However, it’s not possible to deny that the recent report has embarrassed some African Union members and has sown seeds of mistrust.

Although this development will not undermine relations between China and its most prominent African partners, like Rwanda and Nigeria, Botswana used what the report revealed to discourage excessive reliance on China. Relations between Botswana and China became tense after the latter pressured the former to cancel a visit the Dali Lama wanted to make. This made Botswana have second thoughts about its relations with China. However, the Botswana case is an exception and not the norm here. Accusations of espionage may lead to more adverse consequences for China if similar developments continued to happen. The African Union headquarters is not the only building which can be infiltrated as China has sealed deals to build and fund parliament buildings in Zimbabwe and Congo and to finalize parliament construction in Malawi, Seychelles, Guinea-Bissau and Lesotho.

This is in addition to construction works in Egypt’s new administrative capital. African countries will thus be more cautious when using Chinese construction companies for their future projects, especially projects related to security. They may even begin to rely on their own resources, particularly their own human resources.

China has had its eyes on Africa for decades. Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Africa aimed to stop this Chinese tide. It’s too late for the US as Africa cannot do without Chinese largesse. However, since China’s flagrant violation is an unacceptable result of Chinese and African foreign policies, both parties (China and Africa) will probably blame Western media for trying to undermine Chinese-African relations. The defamation campaign against the West will allow all concerned parties to circumvent the uncomfortable facts surrounding the dynamics of relations between China and different African countries.

This will be the AU’s official policy. African leaders may remember this Chinese spying incident and take measures to monitor the activity of their biggest commercial partner, at least its activity within governmental buildings which Chinese companies constructed. In the long run, relations will not be tense as a result of these spying accusations because despite African countries’ suspicions, they will not find more trustworthy partners.

What these spying accusations revealed has raised questions about the “secret costs” for allowing China to build governmental buildings and sensitive infrastructure in Africa and other places. The Silk Road is very long and it passes through many countries, most of whom desire to work with China, as it is more stable than others and more generous in terms of constructing governmental buildings, bridges, ports and connecting railways. So do these countries think they will grow and develop at China’s expense without paying a price that harms their sovereignty?

It’s China whom great leaders once said “It is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep.” This giant is now awake.

This article was first published in Arabic.


Huda al-Husseini is a political writer who focuses on Middle East geopolitics.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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