The debt is a mix of cash loans, infrastructure construction agreements, and resource-backed loans. Many of the agreements across the continent are on commercial terms rather than government-to-government, meaning the discussions around Chinese debt often fall into both the traditional bilateral loans and private creditor loans.

There has been growing concern in the Bretton Woods hemisphere of the world that China has been coercing developing countries, particularly in Africa, into taking credit on onerous terms, which could see China grab control of state assets if the loans were not repaid as agreed.

This so-called “debt-trap diplomacy” narrative started a few years ago as polite mutterings in the think tanks of Washington, DC and parts of Europe. It has since been blown out into the mainstream in no uncertain terms by the Trump White House. Now that the Trump administration has its own man leading the World Bank—David Malpass—even the bank has aired concerns about China’s opaque deals in Africa.

Despite several China-Africa analysts and scholars pointing out there’s little evidence of any African asset ever being claimed by Beijing, the narrative has stuck.

African governments have been keen to find the estimated $100 billion a year needed to narrow the continent’s infrastructure gap. At the same time, China has needed to support its state-owned enterprises, such as construction firms and banks, in finding work outside China. So, in simple terms, that’s often meant that an infrastructure loan underwritten by the Chinese government is struck with a Chinese bank for a Chinese construction firm with mostly Chinese workers to come to said African country and build an airport, railway, or bridge.

Another feature of the China-Africa debt narrative is around problematic resource-backed loans, in which a country gets finance in exchange for, or collateralized by, future streams of income from its natural resources, such as oil or minerals. Between 2004 and 2018, $65.8 billion of resource-backed loans was made to Sub-Saharan African countries, according to research (pdf) by the Natural Resources Governance Institute.

More than half the total amount of loans to Sub-Saharan African countries examined in the report came from the China Development Bank and China Eximbank, and were given to Angola ($21.4 billion), Ghana ($3 billion), Niger ($1 billion), and Sudan ($3 billion).

The significance of the fact that roughly 20% of African debt is to China, largely in the form of commercial agreements, is that the quarterly or biannual debt repayments account for 30% to 50% of total repayments made by these countries, according to analysis by Standard Chartered Bank.

This brings us to the ongoing conversations about debt relief or debt moratoriums being championed by African countries and the United Nations as a way to get through this difficult period.

That will not be easy or straightforward, in part because China has insisted on negotiating with each of its debtors one-on-one, like it did when making the loans.

“For countries who face debt difficulties, China will never force them, but will resolve it through consultation via bilateral channels,” China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said in April.

This has made some analysts uncomfortable, perhaps because they feel a united Africa has a better chance of getting a good deal from China than some countries with a GDP the size of a Shanghai suburb. Others note that there’s just not much chance of an alternative arrangement.

“It might be a waste of time to attempt to try and force China to do something it has never done and shows no inclination to do,” says W Gyude Moore, fellow at the Center for Global Development. “It is best to go forward with bilateral deliberations. But there is nothing preventing African countries from conferring among themselves, sharing notes even as they enter these bilateral negotiations.”

As Deborah Brautigam, director of the Johns Hopkins China Africa Research Initiative points out, China’s economic challenges post-Covid, and the fact that it has $1.9 trillion of its own debt, “make it unlikely that we will see Beijing agree to real and wide-ranging debt relief.”

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