China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo: A Progressively Deepening Bilateral Partnership

Located in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most natural resource rich nations holding massive untapped deposits of minerals including cobalt, copper, diamonds and gold amounting to approximately $24 trillion. It possesses extensive rainforest reserves and boasts one of the highest hydroelectric power capacities in Africa and globally. 

Since its independence from Belgian colonial rule in 1960, DRC has encountered complex challenges in state-building due to a history of political instability and civil war. Until 1997, it remained under the kleptocratic, dictatorial regime of Mobutu Sese Seko supported by the West amidst Cold-War bipolarity. 

With the advent of the 21st century, moving away from earlier trends of state-centric economic planning and ownership of private enterprises as well as appropriation of income by a corrupt political machinery, DRC has turned towards a market-oriented economic system undertaking structural reforms for macro-economic recovery with the involvement of the Bretton Woods Institutions. While economic improvements were witnessed in 2001-2014, DRC’s economic condition has been in severe deterioration since 2016-2017. Ranking high in global poverty and human rights abuses, DRC continues to be one of the least developed countries in the world as indicated by its position of 175 out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index 2020. There is an evident causal relationship between the current humanitarian crisis and social unrest in DRC and the exploitation it endured under decades of colonial hegemony. 

The DRC’s strategic significance to Central Africa and world politics emanates from its potential as an economic powerhouse and its resource wealth amidst expanding global capitalism and resource demand which has resulted in a rising interest of multi-national corporations and neo-imperialist forces such as China. DRC’s main source of export earnings i.e., its mining sector has consistently been controlled by foreign enterprises. Since 2006, China’s stake in DRC’s mining industry has been displaying ascendancy. The needs of China’s rapidly growing economy has further diverted its attention to the Democratic Republic of Congo renowned for its premier quality supply of mineral resources.

Nature and History of China-DRC Relations

While Sino-Congolese (DR) associations were established in the 1960s, formal relations have remained intact since 1972. The bilateral relationship exhibits a dualistic nature; firstly that of a strategic alliance favouring China’s aim of maintaining a considerable presence in Africa and secondly, a deepening trade partnership allowing increasing private investment from China into the DRC. The latter trend can be understood in context of China’s ‘Zou chuqu (going out) policy’; a component of China’s broader economic reformation and modernization strategy instituted under Deng Xiaoping intended at encouraging surplus domestic capital to invest overseas in order to “deepen access to foreign markets, natural resources and advanced technology, bringing about additional growth and stabilization”. China’s strategy towards DRC is shaped by a ‘resource for infrastructure’ approach; wherein investment in infrastructure projects in resource-rich countries are undertaken in exchange for resource exploitation. 

The Chinese strategy of investment, aid and development in DRC has been perceived as a profitable opportunity by the Congolese government fulfilling the urgent need of infrastructural development for socio-economic improvement. Moreover, contrary to the approach of Western powers and international financial institutions, China’s developmental partnership is based on a policy of mutual economic benefit without any interference in domestic affairs of countries or political conditionalities. It does not impose demands of democracy, adequate human rights conditions, transparent and uncorrupt governance etc.; factors which have reached disastrous proportions in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ipso facto, this has acted as a catalyst strengthening Sino-DRC relations. 

China-DRC relations is essentially marked by an element of inequality due to China’s status as a globally dominant power juxtaposed against DRC’s status as a significantly weaker and lesser developed power. However, sturdy economic relations are expected to continue due to their mutually interdependent relationship and what China has termed a win-win arrangement. “For China, the DRC is a secure source of strategic natural resources, market for its manufactured goods, and space for investment in infrastructure development. For the DRC, China is a source of finance and know-how for its infrastructural, and a source of manufactured goods.”

An important landmark delineating the China-DRC economic relationship was the Sino Congolaise des Mines (Sicomines pact) in 2008. Through this agreement, Chinese partners (with a 68% stake) gained mining rights to cobalt and copper in exchange for China’s agreement to spearhead infrastructural projects. The “mutually beneficial” agreement was envisaged to stimulate exports, economic growth, revenue and job opportunities in the Congo (DR) whilst bolstering China’s critical mineral resource capacities through mining rights. According to the 2008 agreement, China would be the beneficiary of “10 million tonnes (mt) of copper and 600,000 mt of cobalt at an estimated value of US$50 billion over a 25-year period”. It is noteworthy that the Sicomine agreement paved the way for the entry of Chinese investment and capital influx into DRC’s political economy. Despite garnering substantial criticism, over the years, production of cobalt and broadly, DRC’s macro-economic performance has risen lending weight to the notion of China as a valuable strategic partner for low-income countries. However, DRC’s increased economic dependence on China entails a plausible threat of an asymmetrical relationship serving narrow interests given the high rates of corruption in the DRC. To illustrate further, while DRC accounted for 70% of the global cobalt production capacity as of 2020, Chinese investors occupied control over 70% of DRC’s mining sector through RFI (Resources for Infrastructure) Deals expressive of China’s growing monopoly in the cobalt market. 

DRC and the Belt and Road Initiative

As elucidated above, DRC is integral to Chinese foreign policy which is best exemplified through China’s One Belt One Road Initiative. It entails a China-led development approach based on investment and infrastructure building projects from Asia to Europe. While there have been substantial debates on whether the BRI is simply an economic venture or a strategic and coercive tool wielded by China to expand its political and geo-economic influence, increasing BRI partnerships have served to bolster its pace. 

In January 2021, Kinshasa served as the location for inter-state negotiations between PRC’s Foreign Minister and DRC’s Minister of State and Foreign Affairs culminating in a Memorandum of Understanding on BRI. Bringing in DRC as the 45th BRI cooperation partner is one of the most recent developments defining Sino-Congolese relations. It is also indicative of a consistent and constantly deepening bilateral engagement on economic and other fronts between the two countries as we progress into the future. Welcoming DRC into BRI was precipitated by China’s desire to forego DRC’s ‘interest free’ loans amounting to US$ 28 million in 2020 and China’s decision to pledge US $17 million for development projects and aid. It must also be highlighted that in contrast to the total African debt on China of $140 billion, only 5% constitutes interest free loans. Essentially, by cancelling a miniscule amount of debt, China has beguiled DRC into its BRI ensuring that Chinese investors in the Congolese (DR) mining industry are incited to increase their stakes in the cobalt and copper industry; lucrative raw materials boosting China’s rapidly growing manufacturing and energy capacities. The latest turn of events secures China’s position as forerunner in the immediate future amidst the scramble for resources and expanding markets.

According to Chinese rhetoric, China is a development and trade partner aiding in economic advancement in the DRC. However, a critical lens towards China’s approach in the DRC would highlight its neo-imperialist character. China’s strategy towards nations with relatively lower bargaining potential has often been associated with the phenomenon of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’; this term is used to describe its predatory lending practices to countries making them vulnerable to Beijing’s demands which will further China’s geostrategic interests in the long run. This has resounded an alarming concern in strategic communities in light of the fact that the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other Sub-Saharan African countries, accounts for a significant portion of China’s lending in the continent according to World Bank International Debt Statistics.

Western anxieties are currently centered on Chinese investment in Africa as a possible trigger for another debt crisis in addition to the threat of Beijing’s expanding geopolitical influence. Conversely, the ‘debt-trap narrative’ positioning China with ‘loan shark’ ambitions in Africa has been met with scepticism as Chinese investment in strategic infrastructure projects is an indispensable option for African countries grappling with booming population growth, slow-paced economic development, lack of job creation and an under-developed manufacturing sector. Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that the focus on Chinese investments in African countries has been marked by a tendency of generalization perceiving the entire continent as a single entity ignoring the diverse socio-economic nature of African countries. 

Accordingly, it is essential to conclude on the note that irrespective of the different viewpoints on China’s engagements with the DRC, the outcomes of Sino-Congolese relations should ultimately be evaluated on the basis of holistic socio-economic enhancements and improvements spurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In that regard, Chinese development projects in DRC have yet to deliver.

[Image credit: Discott, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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