A major narrative over the first two decades of the 21st century has been the rise of China and its emergence as an influential actor in Africa. The relationship has been mutually beneficial – with Chinese financing powering Africa’s commodity exports, economic growth, infrastructure, and knowledge transfer, while African minerals contributed to China’s high growth and economic expansion.
That relationship, and China’s activities elsewhere, have faced withering criticism and prompted Africa’s traditional partners, Europe and the US, to reassess their relationship with the continent. Covid-19 has altered that trajectory and global trends are converging now to ensure that the coming decade will see a consolidation of China’s position in Africa as the dominant external actor. What this means for Africa’s collective future is up in the air.
The continent will experience its first recession in 25 years, triggered by the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic. Four negative trends converge to create a perfect storm: a commodity price crash, massive outflow of capital from frontier markets and emerging markets, a remittances shortfall and the collapse of tourism. A debt crisis that economist Carmen Reinhart predicts could take over a decade to resolve hovers over the continent.
The IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva predicts that the global economy faces a “long ascent,” and foresees “a difficult climb that will be long, uneven, uncertain and prone to setbacks.” This will be complicated by a bifurcating world as the West begins decoupling from China.
China will turn increasingly to Africa
China will increasingly turn to Africa as it faces hostility elsewhere. In Asia, China faces outright distrust from its neighbours or at best, ambivalence. Japan has increased its defence spending to a record high – fraying ties with China are a driver. Relations with India became violent for the first time in decades earlier this year and Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam all mistrust Beijing.
In a poll conducted in 14 advanced economies and published at the beginning of October, researchers at the Pew Research Center found that unfavourable views of China had soared in the last year.
“Today, a majority in each of the surveyed countries has an unfavorable opinion of China,” wrote the researchers. “And in Australia, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the US, South Korea, Spain and Canada, negative views have reached their highest points since the Center began polling on this topic more than a decade ago.”
In the Western hemisphere there are hard limits on how much more influence Beijing can exert in what has traditionally been America’s sphere of influence. A modicum of competent leadership in Washington would see Beijing face stiffening hostilities everywhere. As the world divides, Beijing will turn to the region in which its power and influence are growing and where it faces no peer competitor – Africa.
Europe and the US will not compete for influence
Beyond stern rhetoric and speeches, the US will not offer an alternative in Africa. The continent has never ranked high for US foreign policy, and that is not about to change. Even if there is a change in administration, the new administration will look to, at best, stabilise US engagement in Africa.
It is difficult to imagine a radical escalation of American economic commitments to the continent, even though there are inherent opportunities with the nascent African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and negotiations on trading ahead of the expiration of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) in 2025.
Europe will not compete with China in Africa since Europe has never demonstrated real interest in African prosperity. In 2018, the then EU president, Jean-Claude Juncker, described Europe’s relationship with Africa as “beyond inadequate and humiliatingly so”.
French President Emmanuel Macron has spoken of how current European policy toward Africa is dominated by migration. A more potent indicator of Europe’s lack of interest in Africa was the cancellation of the EU-Africa summit purportedly because of Covid-19, even though the African Union did not object to holding a virtual summit.
China left as main actor
This will leave China as the main actor on the continent among smaller actors like Turkey, India and the Gulf States. Chinese state media is already entertaining the proposition of linking the AfCFTA to China’s Belt and Road global infrastructure Initiative. As China faces pushback elsewhere, expect this trend to gain momentum.
China is already the primary bilateral provider of financing for dual-use infrastructure like ports. China hosts the largest number of African students studying outside the continent. China is a creditor for two-thirds of countries eligible for the G20’s debt service suspension initiative. Most African countries indebted to China will ultimately negotiate a suspension of payments and lengthening of the loan repayment period – increasing their ties to China and preserving Chinese influence there.
Faced with the possibility of angering China or Europe, African states will increasingly side with China. Germany submitted a statement on human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and 40 countries signed. But none were African. China delivered a statement against human rights abuses in the US on behalf of 26 countries – and eight were African. The US either does not recognise this trend or does not seem prepared to respond to it if secretary of state Pompeo’s recent catch-all statement on elections in Africa, which seemed to imply that Africa is single country, is any indication.
How can Africa safeguard its future?
This is not necessarily an optimal outcome for Africa. No external actor is present in Africa with altruistic motives and China is no different. China’s relationship with its neighbours and response to disagreements with long-time trade partners like Australia are indicative of how China responds when its narratives are challenged.
An Africa completely dependent on China is an Africa exposed to Chinese retaliation for inevitable outcomes of our democratic processes that do not align with Beijing’s worldview. A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute tracks Chinese use of “coercive diplomacy” 152 times in 27 countries and the EU. China’s response to a general manager of one team in the NBA tweeting his support of Hong Kong protesters was to suspend broadcasts of all NBA games for a year – there is no siloed Chinese reaction.
If there were ever an imperative for an economically integrated, single trading bloc with 54 votes in international forums, raising Africa’s leverage and negotiating powers, it is this: the coming decade of Chinese dominance on the continent.
Gyude Moore is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. He previously served as Liberia’s minister of public works.