Uganda-China Relations: Partnership of Equals and Win-Win Cooperation

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By Ndunaka Godswill Chikamso

Like many other countries, Uganda has been seeking foreign investment and partnerships to drive economic development and the country has made significant strides towards economic development in recent years, thanks to the support of various international partners. One such partnership that has been growing in significance is China-Uganda Relations.

China and Uganda have a longstanding relationship dating back to the early 1960s when Uganda gained independence. The relationship has been characterized by cooperation in various areas, including trade, infrastructure development, and education. Over the years, China has provided significant assistance to Uganda in the form of aid, loans, and investments opportunities. In 2018, China was Uganda’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade worth over $1.2 billion. Since then, Beijing remains one of Uganda’s leading trade partners and major source of foreign direct investments (FDI).

With China introducing zero tariff to Ugandan goods which will see Ninety-eight percent of Ugandan goods accessing Chinese market tariff free, trade between the two countries is expected to grow further. Last year, Chinese Ambassador to Uganda, Zhang Lizhong announced the Special Preferential Tariff Treatment of Ugandan Exports to China, explaining that this was in line with commitments made by China at the Eighth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Senegal last year.

Even before the said Special Preferential Tariff Treatment, China has been investing heavily in Uganda, particularly in infrastructure development projects such as roads, bridges, and power plants. The most notable project is the 51 kilometers Kampala-Entebbe Expressway, which was constructed with a loan from China’s Exim Bank and has greatly improved the country’s transportation sector. Additionally, China has financed the construction of the Karuma and Isimba hydroelectric power plants, which will increase Uganda’s energy capacity and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. The entry of Chinese construction firms into Ugandan market is always cited as the reason for reducing billing prices for road construction in Uganda. Indeed, at the time when European companies were dominating road construction business, the construction of one kilometer took about 3.1 billion shillings compared to current rate of about 2.1 billion shillings per kilometer.

China has also invested in Uganda’s telecommunications sector, with Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE playing a significant role in the country’s development of 4G networks and fibre optic cables. This has greatly improved internet connectivity in Uganda and provided opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Another sector that China has played a significant role in Uganda’s economic development is supporting the country’s infrastructure especially road and energy sectors which has in turn helped easing transportation of goods and services and also helped in addressing unemployment challenge. In 2014, while closing a two-day Pan African Youth Conference at Serena International Hotel Conference in Kigali Rwanda, President Yoweri Museveni explained that “infrastructure development such as Roads, Electricity and Railway in any country is of importance as it attracts investments and creates jobs for the youths.”

In 2017, while on a visit to Uganda, Christine Lagarde, then Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) credited Uganda for what she described as “Uganda has appropriately embarked on a strategy of scaled-up infrastructure investment in the energy and transport sectors to relieve key growth bottlenecks and enhance regional linkages.” Lagarde argued that “focusing on overcoming implementation challenges, including through strengthening public investment management, should help ensure that these investments yield the desired outcomes in terms of higher growth and job creation.”  If critically analysed, the improvement and development of Uganda’s energy and infrastructure sector became possible largely because of China’s assistance.

Today, Africa’s biggest challenge, especially Sub-Saharan region, is poor and aging infrastructure.  A 2022 study by McKinsey and Company concluded that unless addressed, infrastructure deficits in key sectors such as roads and energy will continue to hinder African countries’ economic growth and development especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. The study concluded that while the region is faced with high demand of infrastructure development, there are few partners or investors willing to provided huge amounts needed for such projects. Therefore, China’s readiness to back such projects in Uganda and Africa in general cannot be underestimated.

However, while China’s hand in supporting African countries infrastructure is a big boost, Uganda and other African countries must should only borrow and invest in projects that can easily spur economic development as a way of ensuring easy servicing of loan facilities extended while undertaking such infrastructure projects so that issues such as rising debts critics often point at are avoided.

That said, there are multitudes of opportunities that comes with steady and good relations between China and African countries. The other area with huge potential for cooperation is in the field of agriculture. While China is already working with Uganda in this area especially through FAO-China South-South Cooperation (SSC) in which China has since 2015 been supporting agriculture initiatives in Uganda, if projects under SSC especially its phase III are spread throughout the country, more fruits will be realized in a short period. SSC has potential to spark Uganda’s economic development especially if they work together with Uganda government’s introduced Parish Development Model (PDM).  Uganda is an agricultural country, and there is a need to enhance agricultural productivity and value addition. With her rich experience in modern agriculture, China can provide technical support, expertise, and investment towards Uganda’s agricultural sector.

In conclusion, China has played a significant role in Uganda’s economic development, providing funding and investment for critical infrastructure projects. China’s engagement with Uganda has brought many benefits, including employment opportunities, enhanced energy capacity, and improved connectivity. While this has brought several benefits to the country, including job creation and economic diversification, there are also concerns about debt sustainability, environmental impact, and the impact on local industries and businesses. As Uganda continues to seek foreign investment and partnerships, it will be important to carefully consider the benefits and drawbacks of these relationships and ensure that they are sustainable and equitable.

Ndunaka Godswill Chikamso is a junior research fellow at Sino-Uganda Research Centre and a Medical student Niger Delta University, Nigeria.


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