China and the US are important players in the politics and economic development of Africa. These two major powers have undertaken several initiatives to deepen their engagement with the continent to expand their interests, writes Dr David Monyae.
Dr David Monyae, the Co-Director of the University Of Johannesburg (UJ) Confucius Institute (UJCI), penned an opinion piece entitled “Africa should stand firm in its relations“, published on the Sunday Independent, 26 March 2017.
Despite President Donald Trump’s attempt to reverse the US’s global leadership through his anti-globalisation and a foreign policy of isolationism, Washington remains an important player in Africa.
Historically, the US has had a head start on investment and commercial engagement with Africa, its focus has mostly been on promoting liberal democratic ideals for economic development. China, on the other hand, has enhanced its role on the continent with a no-strings attached approach to investment and commercial engagement, creating the impression that Beijing is ready and willing to support Africa’s development efforts.
Africa is a strategic region for the US and China, and this should propel the AU to use this opportunity to further its development agenda for the continent. It should not be Beijing or Washington that shapes Africa’s agenda; rather Africa must define how it could strategically engage these global giants. In other words, Africa should stand firm and negotiate fair deals (win-win) with China and the US. The AU has gradually developed a clear strategic framework that guides its relationship with external actors.
The University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute (UJCI), in partnership with the UJ Library, hosted a successful public dialogue on The role of China and the US in Africa’s Quest for Development. The key areas of the public dialogue were: The role of the African Agency in shaping the outcomes of its engagements with external partners, Africa’s developmental agenda (as defined by the AU’s Agenda 2063), A critical evaluation of whether the US and China are competitors or partners in their interactions with the African continent.
Although the African continent is undoubtedly endowed with rich mineral resources, from north through the west and south, its youthful population remains the greatest asset in its possession.
It has always been these minerals and the African people that external powers have exploited to power their own development.
There are also new oil and gas discoveries in East Africa. From Central to southern Africa minerals such as coltan, gold, diamonds, tin, uranium are found. For example, literature estimates that the DRC contains about $24 trillion (R299trillion) dollars’ worth of valuable minerals.
These minerals are equivalent to the combined GDP’s of Europe and the US. Yet Africa remains the most under-developed region in the world.
Access to Africa’s natural resources is a central point of friction between China and the US. It seems as if China and the US are using development to capture Africa’s attention.
Three questions can be asked (i) are China and the US bringing about development in Africa. (ii) Are China and the US using development as an entry point to access Africa’s natural resources and (iii) Are China and the US partners or enemies in Africa’s quest for development?
Historically, Africa has been a battleground for great powers such as the East versus the West (US and USSR, now Russia). During the Cold War, Africa gained nothing. Instead, in the Cold War aftermath, Africa was engulfed by intractable conflicts which deepened poverty and marginalised Africa further.
This means that the presence of China and the US in Africa – for the purpose of bringing about the development and access to Africa’s natural resources – is likely to lead to a conflict of interest between the two economic superpowers, an issue that might leave Africa hopeless. The question that comes to mind is whether China and the US are becoming enemies or partners in Africa.
As a matter of fact, with the rise of China and its economic interests firmly squared on African resources, the West and particularly the US has become fearful of China’s in-roads. For example, the Chinese have made significant investments in infrastructure projects in Africa. This has made Africa a high priority in China’s agenda through the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). In 2015, at the FOCAC summit in South Africa, the Chinese President Xi Jinping promised $60 billion in developmental assistance to Africa.
African leaders perceived this pledge as win-win co-operation, with a huge portion of the funds earmarked for projects in infrastructure, healthcare, human resource, ICT, agriculture, special trade and economic zones as well as the cancellation of outstanding debts for least developed countries.
Assuredly, China has incorporated Africa in its most ambitious project to date, the One Belt One Road and the 21st Century Maritime Route (OBOR) Initiative, to further strengthen the historical bonds between the two sides. China nominated Kenya to be Africa’s hub for its OBOR initiative due to its geo-strategic position. It is currently investing heavily in rail infrastructure projects linking Kenya and its landlocked neighbours including Uganda, South Sudan, Burundi and Rwanda. Literature estimates that such investments will unlock intra-Africa as well as broader international trade opportunities in the process.
In parallel with this, Tanzania and the Export-Import Bank of China inked a $7.6bn loan agreement for the construction of a standard gauge railway corridor project that will also link Tanzania with regional neighbours Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo.
The Chinese no-strings attached approach to development in Africa has been “resource for development”.
The AU ought to engage the Trump administration on a broad range of issues affecting the continent.
The most critical issues are: saving the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, limiting the impact of Trump’s budget cuts to the UN, and to ensure that Africa is not negatively affected by what appears to be an anti-Muslim campaign advanced by his administration.
Africa should be very eager to use this opportunity to further its development.
It should not be Beijing or Washington that shape Africa’s agenda, rather Africa must define how to strategically engage these two powers.
Africa should play an active role to avoid it becoming a battleground as was the case during the Cold War in what appears as an emerging economic cold war.
Monyae is a political analyst and co-director at the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute.
*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessary reflect that of the University of Johannesburg