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Negotiating infrastructure deals with China

Kenya Railways locomotive. EPA

On the other hand, some outside interventions can be positive. In Togo, Senegal and Tunisia, and the current government in Benin, I’ve seen examples of the cabinet hiring international law firms with experts who have worked in the Chinese government and its development banks. This can bridge the differences in Chinese and African negotiating styles.

The Chinese often adopt a take-it-or-leave-it approach. In many cases, Africans are not confrontational enough in return. They don’t appreciate that China has a surplus of domestically produced materials they are seeking to offload, for example. Wiser negotiators will play China off against other countries seeking to finance infrastructure projects on the continent, such as South Korea or the United Arab Emirates.

Keep the public onside

China tends to be popular in Africa – more so than the U.S. in around 60% of countries on the continent. Yet the public also see negatives: many think Chinese products are poor quality, while there is a growing perception that dealing with China tends to favour Chinese labourers.

African governments need to bear these concerns in mind. If not, they risk being denounced by the media or civil society organisations – as has happened in Kenya over the railway, for instance.

Increase knowledge

African governments are still relatively new to dealing with China; they should take every opportunity to share lessons with one another. There is a role for African universities here. They should set up more centres of Asian studies to close the gap in information and knowledge.

Some have argued in the past that many African governments fail to negotiate successfully with the Chinese because they lack a strategy. I actually see plenty stratagems and tactics on the African side. What is required is a more coordinated and coherent approach – something China has been working on from its own perspective. It is better for African governments to have no deal than a bad deal. With the right approach, they can achieve much more than is often thought to be the case.

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Folashade Soule is a Senior Research Associate, University of Oxford

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