China Secretly Cancels Cameroon’s Debt

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I’m Chris Chappell. Debt relief. When a country lets another country off the hook for paying back loans. As in no more debt, what a relief. If only they did that for student loans.

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Specifically, *my* student loans. Usually when rich creditor countries forgive the debts of poorer countries, there’s a ton of publicity to highlight all that generosity. Like that time twenty years ago when Bono worked with world leaders to get them to forgive more than $100 million in loans to the poorest countries.

“Take your time and get your head around this fact. The national debt of the 18 poorest countries in Africa has been canceled thanks to Bono.” The point is, everyone loves publicity. Which is why it’s weird that when China recently wrote off a chunk of debt of the West African nation of Cameroon… it was all super hush hush. And then reporters asked, “Why the secrecy?” In fact, the world might not have even known China forgave a chunk of Cameroon’s debt if not for a gaffe by the Chinese language edition of the Wall Street Journal. It reported— based on a statement from the president of Cameroon— that China had agreed to write off 5 billion dollars of Cameroon’s debt.

Since that’s almost all of the debt that Cameroon has ever borrowed from China, that news report caused a bit of controversy online. Last September, Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged some $60 billion dollars in aid, investment and loans to Africa at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. That created some backlash, including netizens asking online why China was giving money away to nearly failed states in Africa, when in China there are at least 30 million people who live on less than a dollar a day. As you can imagine, those questions were then censored. Actually, it was at that meeting in September where Cameroon’s president Paul Biya pleaded with Chinese authorities to ease his country’s debt burden— according to Chinese media.

But it turns out, when the Wall Street Journal said China forgave 5 billion dollars in debt, well…it was kind of not quite accurate. The actual amount was 78 million dollars. That’s a big difference. It’s like reporting that “The new tower is a tall as the Empire State Building!” When actually it’s only one story tall, with a low ceiling.

Now, Chinese media had a field day with this, with the Global Times calling it a huge blunder for US media: And other Chinese media accusing foreign media of planting fake news for Chinese readers. But if it weren’t for the Wall Street Journal’s mistake, the world might never have known of China’s “generosity.” See, Cameroon still owes China about 3 billion dollars in total debt. So the 78 million in debt forgiveness is actually really small. So now it should be clear why China might have wanted to keep it a secret. It’s not really a PR win.

I mean, 78 million is less than what one rock star with sunglasses can do. But there’s another reason the Chinese regime may have wanted to keep news of the debt relief under wraps. Reporters might start to suspect that the Chinese regime plans to use debt relief to get something in return.

Remember the story of how “China got Sri Lanka to cough up a port”? China lent billions to Sri Lanka, no strings attached, and when they couldn’t pay it off, China asked for Hambantota port. And China got it. Sri Lanka was forced to sign a 99-year lease in exchange for waving off about a billion in debt.

So I guess there were strings attached. Plus the deal gave China control of territory right near its arch-rival, India, as well as a strategic foothold along a critical commercial and military waterway. Unconditional debt forgiveness— that’s for suckers. Setting up a long-term lending relationship so that you can get something in return that gives you a geostrategic advantage, now that’s the kind of lending relationship the Chinese regime likes. Xi Jinping calls it “win-win mutual cooperation.” I like to call it, “debt trap diplomacy.” For more on that, you can watch my episode “5 Countries That Have Fallen into China’s Debt Trap” for all the sordid details of how China leverages debt to get what it wants. Wow, I forgot there was a time when I didn’t have a beard.

Anyway, why would the Chinese regime care about Cameroon? Well, for one: mineral resources. Like bauxite, iron ore, and gold. And don’t worry, Chinese gold mining operations there are totally legit and have no problems whatsoever.

Ok, a few minor problems. But look, there’s another reason China cares about Cameroon. Let’s go back to that map. Cameroon sits along the Gulf of Guinea.

And that’s a good place to be when doing trade with a dozen other countries, like Nigeria. So it should come as no surprise that China has invested 1.2 billion dollars to convert a fishing town called Kribi into the region’s biggest deep-water port. “Made up of four main parts, a deep water port with roughly 20 wharfs, a zone for industrial and logistics activity, a multi-modal transport corridor, a new city.” And Cameroon’s Kribi port is connected to a pipeline project to bring in oil from land-locked Chad.

There’s also a 436 million dollar highway China is funding there. It ties the port with Cameroon’s resource-rich inland area. And there are also plans to build a railroad directly to a deposit of iron ore. And those iron mines will definitely not have problems. So far it doesn’t look like Cameroon has had to directly give up any of its infrastructure or resources for the 78 million dollars in debt forgiveness.

But the Chinese Communist Party’s overall actions in Cameroon are clearly the same strategy it has used around the world: Make generous loans, get countries in debt, and forgive the debt in exchange for small things— like all of their resources, or strategic infrastructure. Win-win mutual cooperation. Which means that China-Cameroon relations should be something to keep an eye on.

And before we go, it’s time for me to answer a question from one of you who supports China Uncensored by contributing a dollar or more though the crowdfunding website Patreon. David Schwimmer asks: “Happy Valentines Day! It seems like the recent love that Putin and Xi have shared, particularly in Eastern Europe and Venezuela, could be undermined by recent NBC media exposure, what do you all think OF THIS! Ah, I see you’re referring to this um, “map” from season one of NBC’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

There are…several…problems with this map. Among them, China has taken over all of Russia. Plus Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. But don’t worry, Xi and Putin can’t be torn apart that easily.

From holding joint press conferences, to cooking delicious Chinese pancakes, to cooking delicious Russian pancakes, to putting friendship medals on each other, it is the relationship between China in Russia that is truly unbreakable. Thanks for your question, David. And as always, I hope all our supporters on Patreon will continue to leave thoughtful, interesting questions within each Patreon post, so I can answer them on the show. Visit Patreon.com/ChinaUncensored to see what you can do to support this show.

You guys keep the lights on here at China Uncensored. Once again, I’m Chris Chappell. See you next time.