UK risks road rage with China in Africa

LONDON — Britain is eying investment in Africa as a way to boost trade and influence after Brexit — but it faces stiff competition from China.

The U.K. has, to date, announced one significant project as part of its new strategy — more than £100 million for a road in the West African state of Benin.

China, on the other hand, plowed $683 million into the country in borrowed funds between 2000 and 2018, according to the China Africa Research Initiative. The Asian powerhouse has invested $148 billion in infrastructure and other developments across the continent as a whole during the near-two decade period, making China the dominant single investor in Africa as part of what became its Belt and Road initiative, creating lucrative openings for Chinese firms and serving as a vital soft-power tool.

But some British Conservatives hope the U.K. can position itself as a more attractive partner.

Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, said countries learned the “real price” of Chinese investment after signing deals. Risible working conditions, environmental breaches, corrupt practices and clashes between local populations and incoming Chinese communities are among the issues reported, he said. A diplomatic row broke out in Zambia over the running of Chinese-built copper mines, for example.

One attraction was that Chinese investment comes with few strings attached at the outset, critics argue, as well as fewer regulatory hurdles, compared with loans from high-regulation western nations.

However, debt arrangements for loans can be crippling — such as in the case of a Chinese-backed rail line in Kenya — giving Beijing greater power over its debtors. “You thought [the investment] was free but it turns out it’s not free,” Tugendhat said.

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