Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – The heavens open and the rain rinses the street of the dry dust accumulated from the nearby construction site on the edge of Bole Ring Road in the Ethiopian capital.
Addis Ababa is booming: scaffoldings jigsaw the skyline, and trendy cafés flank newly built roads. Within an intricate web of government repression and economic intervention, there is one common thread in Ethiopia’s rapid growth over the last 10 years.
“The Chinese – they’re building everything,” says Charra Tesfaye, a lecturer in international trade law at the University of Makele in northern Ethiopia.
The 4.3km Bole Road, built by the Chinese for $60mn, is just a pittance of the funds China has spent in Ethiopia.
Chinese and Turkish contractors are constructing a 5,000km railway network that will link the entire country, including neighbouring Djibouti, to Addis Ababa. The $3.2bn project is likely to shift the economic logic of the region, as landlocked Ethiopia will be henceforth given a route to the coast.
Such is the frenetic pace of the project that a 1,800km stretch is expected to be complete by 2015.
Ethiopia, however, is not the sole recipient of aid, loans or developmental assistance from China. The country is fourth on a long list – behind Ghana, Nigeria and Sudan – among the top African beneficiaries of Chinese largesse.
Since 2002, China has invested an estimated $75bn on the continent, hot on the heels of the United States, which invested $90bn during the same period. The US might still hold the edge over China on investment, but the Chinese replaced the US as Africa’s biggest trade partner in 2009.
This has prompted concern over dwindling American influence on the continent. While that may be premature – and President Barack Obama has publicly denied any trepidation over China’s increasing role here – the US is readjusting its approach to Africa.
Obama arrived on Monday in Tanzania on the final leg of his African trip, after visiting Senegal and South Africa.
In between calls for consolidating democracy and improving governance, it is, as the adage goes, the “economy, stupid,” that has motivated Obama’s current three-country safari to the continent.
Speaking to Al Jazeera before his departure, Jendayi Frazer – former US assistant secretary of state for African Affairs – admitted as much when she said the US would need to “pursue higher levels of engagement to effectively compete with China’s growing influence in Africa”.
As the US and Europe struggle with the global economic crisis, China has been undeterred in its financial investments. Its motivations in Africa, however, have inceasingly been questioned in recent years.
While the Chinese are purposefully portrayed as a marauding armada of economic mercenaries armed with cheap goods that annihilate local manufacturing and explosives and jackhammers to satisfy relentless mining ambitions, other analysts and politicians say the story is far more complex.
have no right to choose friends for Africa.”]
Those who criticise China today are the same ones who used to impose their will on Africa, Joram Biswaro, Tanzania’s ambassador to Ethiopia, told Al Jazeera.
“Those who believe so [that China is a threat] have no right to choose friends for Africa,” he said.
While critics contend China’s scant regard for local politics and human rights colours their scramble for African resources with self-interest, African leaders argue that China is merely providing for the continent’s growing needs.
If Africa is fast becoming the battlefield for natural resources, Tanzania is on the frontline. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Tanzania on his maiden foreign trip as president just over three months ago. Obama will become the third in a succession of US presidents – along with Bill Clinton and George W Bush – to pay the east African country a visit.
Not only does Tanzania boast the longest shoreline on the continent after Somalia, its close proximity to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central Africa Republic makes it a strategic hub of investment and political influence.
Factor in newly discovered gas reserves inland and offshore, and Tanzania’s importance is rapidly increasing.
On Tuesday, Obama is expected to travel with a delegation of 500 investors and businessmen.
But before leaving South Africa for Dar es Salam, Obama pledged $7bn to upgrade power distribution in Sub Saharan Africa.
While the US is clearly trying to play catch up, Greg Mills, from the Brenthurst Foundation in Johannesburg says it is not a case of countering Chinese growth in the region.
“The continent has improved because of Chinese interest and improved political conditions in many countries on the continent … It has taken China to open up the worlds’ eyes to the potential in Africa,” Mills told Al Jazeera.
African leaders insist that China negotiates on a level-playing field, since African countries are able to set the agenda.
“As far as we are concerned, it is a win-win situation,” Tedros Adhanom, Ethiopia’s foreign minister, told Al Jazeera. “They come for business and we negotiate … We make sure that the trade and investment is based on our priorities.”
It is understandable then that China has replaced the World Bank as the biggest creditor to the continent, and that African countries are clamouring for China’s attention.
In theory, it all makes sense. China’s official position on economic partnership is based on a belief in political equality, non-intervention in a country’s political affairs, and a mutually beneficial relationship for both sponsor and recipient.
In practice, however, it is difficult to imagine smaller nations ably negotiating an even-handed deal, going up against Chinese capital.
There is also Chinese pressure on African countries to toe their party line, illuminated embarrassingly by South Africa’s continued refusal to grant the Dalai Lama a visa.
A lack of technological transfers to Africa is also apparent, as Chinese companies bring in their own staff to handle design, engineering and technical aspects of projects. The menial tasks, at best, are left to the locals.
In 2012, President Jacob Zuma described this type of trade as “unsustainable”, adding African history demanded that all foreign interests should be viewed with some scepticism. Ethiopia’s foreign minister Adhanom said the onus lies on African countires, and not China, to ensure they are not taken advantage of.
Obama, speaking in South Africa on Saturday, made a thinly veiled dig at China’s activities in Africa. He urged African leaders to be tougher negotiators with foreign investors, so that ordinary people would benefit and spur broad-based development.
“When we look at what other countries are doing in Africa, I think our only advice is make sure it’s a good deal for Africa,” Obama said.
But analysts working in the region say much of the criticism and reportage of China’s moves in Africa is inaccurate, even wrong.
“I think it is worthwhile looking at the source of such reporting. I don’t think I have seen this coming from African writers … most comes from international correspondents from [the] outside,” Guang Chen, World Bank country director for Ethiopia, said.
“I do believe from my personal observation, the Chinese engagement on the continent has been mostly positive,” Chen added.
China certainly does suffer an image problem in Africa. With all its gains as the world’s second-biggest economy, it has battled to shed its tag as a vestige for human rights abuse, political repression and censorship. On the other hand, one million Chinese workers have moved to Africa working in the telecommunications and mining industries, or selling shoes or tobacco across the continent. These jobs, people say, could be filled by ordinary Africans.
While there are laws in Ethiopia and Tanzania, for instance, designed to protect local vendors and prevent the flooding of cheap Chinese goods into local markets, implementation is rarely carried out.
“You certainly cannot say that scepticism [about China’s moves in Africa] is unfounded. Their activities have to be scrutinised,” Tesfaye said.
With the rapid emergence of China’s Xinhua state news agency and public broadcaster CCTV coverage across the continent, China is poised to remedy its image in Africa.
Other efforts are in play including providing 12,000 African students with scholarships to Chinese universities; embassies established in all but four of Africa’s 54 countries; a growing number of Chinese cultural centres; and the dispatch of 1,500 of its health professionals. All of this illustrates that China’s involvement on the continent is more diverse than it’s given credit for.
Chinese construction workers, meanwhile, can be seen hard at work throughout Addis Ababa, as they are in other African cities.
Despite some scepticism of China’s intentions, for many Ethiopians not having seen new roads, dams, or hospitals built for decades, this new focus on infrastructure development is what counts. Chinese efforts here may also be the best chance of kickstarting the country’s future, the lecturer Tesfaye concludes.
Additional reporting by Dereje Berhanu in Addis Ababa
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa