China and Africa’s debt: Yes to relief, no to blanket forgiveness

Given the complex factors and China’s history with African debt, the international community must be realistic when calling on debt relief from China.
Part of the Chinese Foreign Policy Project
By Yun Sun

This article was originally published in Brookings.

As COVID-19 exacerbates the pressure on vulnerable public health systems in Africa, the economic outlook of African countries is also becoming increasingly unstable. Just this month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected that the region’s economic growth will shrink by an unprecedented 1.6 percent in 2020 amid tighter financial conditions, a sharp decline in key export prices, and severe disruptions to economic activity linked to the pandemic. Anticipating the upcoming turbulence, key stakeholders—including the IMF and World Bank, sovereign governments such as France, and thought leaders in think tanks such as Brookings—have all called for debt relief to encourage post-coronavirus economic recovery. Indeed, on April 14, the IMF approved $500 million to cancel six months of debt payments for 25 countries, 19 of which are in Africa.

Even with this massive debt relief by so many players in the international community, without the participation of China in this endeavor, African countries still stand to suffer. Indeed, Beijing is widely regarded as the single largest creditor to Africa. The Jubilee Debt Campaign—a coalition of organizations in the United Kingdom dedicated to debt relief for developing countries—has calculated that, as of 2018, around 20 percent of all African government debt is owed to China. Due to the magnitude of these debts, some experts argue that China holds a special role—as it is in the “driver’s seat”—for the debt relief campaign for Africa. French President Emmanuel Macron has even personally called for China to provide debt relief for African countries.

Read the full op-ed in Brookings.

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