China is Not “Taking Over” Zambian Airport – But if China Did, it Would Not be Problematic

Chinese media and officials from the Zambian government are denying the content of fake news reports stating that China would take possession of Zambia’s largest airport and other infrastructure projects in light of an alleged failure on Zambia’s part to repay debts to Beijing. According to a report from China’s official Xinhua agency, “Chief government spokesperson Dora Siliya tweeted a denial of the report that said the government was seeking to sell some public assets, pointing out that some of the China-funded projects had not even been completed“.

While the fake news reports were rapidly dispelled both from Beijing and from Lusaka, the false claims follow a growing trend among those seeking to sow Sinophobic narratives in Africa. The so-called “debt-trap” conspiracy theory which is typically promulgated by both western and Indian media states that a nation partnering with China in the One Belt–One Road initiative will find that early stage investment and generous loans will eventually come back to bite the poorer partner nation which will inevitably default on the loan leading to a Chinese “take over” of legally re-possessed infrastructure projects. In reality, there are few examples of this with the most infamous one being the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka which was leased to China for 99 years after Colombo failed to repay its debt to Beijing.

The “debt-trap” myth is flawed not only in terms of the fact that it is based on exceptions which prove the rule that most Chinese projects throughout Asia and Africa result in win-win outcomes for both parties, but the myth is also flawed in the sense that it fails to grasp real world realities beyond the ideological and purely theoretical. In life like in geopolitics there is no such thing as a free lunch. While China is more generous in terms of loans, investments and cash injections than most other wealthy nations, it is not in any nation’s interest to rebuild entire continents without getting anything in return.

In this sense, China is engaging in normal business practices that are international standards when it comes to expecting to be paid back on loans that it readily gives to nations aspiring to further develop their economies and infrastructure and does so at levels that are history making in terms of their forward thinking generosity. Of course, instead of offering loans and other investment schemes or otherwise giving away money for free, China could simply come to a foreign state, build infrastructure and keep 100% of the profits from such projects forever more. This however would totally exclude China’s partner nations from the project and would amount to little more than soft imperialism.

Instead, China seeks to cultivate win-win partnerships by including the partner nation in question at all stages of a joint project. In this sense, China is willing to share the benefits and the responsibilities as is normal in a genuine partnership of any kind. Implicit in such relationships is the reality that every now and then one side will negate some of its responsibilities. In the case of Sri Lanka, the government simply bit off more than it could chew and in agreeing to take over Hambantota port, Beijing actually saved Colombo both money and grief.

While Sri Lanka clearly did not think ahead before signing the final agreements regarding Hambantota, the fact is that the port is there and being run by Chinese operations means that it is nevertheless still bringing added value to the Sri Lankan economy. Even if for example China took operational control/ownership of Zambia’s international airport, China would still be working towards making Zambia’s airport more functional and attractive. It goes without saying that having a functional and attractive airport brings added value to any economy irrespective of who owns the airport. This is for example true of England’s Heathrow airport which is operated by a company originating in Spain.

The fact of the matter is whether a Chinese project in a foreign nation goes well (as such things typically do) or whether they require some sort of reassessment as many kinds of projects throughout the world do, China is always blamed by those sowing Sinophobic narratives when in reality China is engaging in normal business practices yet tends to be hated by those infected with a zero-sum mentality because China tends to have a larger success record in foreign infrastructure projects than do rivals including the US and India.

Another problem that arises is that when nations take a step back from deals with China to reconsider – something Sri Lanka clearly did not do though it very well could have done, China absolutely gets the blame here too from those who see the world through a zero-sum prism. When Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad looked to suspend some of the vanity projects that his corrupt predecessor Najib Razak agreed to begin building with Chinese companies, he was, according to some hyper-Sinophobic media outlets “Standing up to China”. In reality he was simply revising business deals the way the new head of a private company would do so with a partner company after taking over from a failed predecessor. There was no anti-China malice in Mahathir’s revisions of deals – just normal business practices.

When understood holistically, it becomes clear that Sinophobic governments and media outlets tend to blame China no matter what it does, even when Beijing works to secure bespoke deals on a win-win model with any willing and able partner. The fact that China requires partners to exercise joint responsibility in exchange for sharing in the joint success of a project is in fact the opposite of exploitation – it is geo-economic empowerment. Ironically, those who criticise China the most are those whose records of partnerships with developing nations have been the most historically scandalous.

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