Africa Should Take the Driving Seat in Its China Dealings

If the continent wants positive outcomes, it must be more hard-nosed, prepared and ruthless than China.

‘China narratives in Western liberal democracies are not mainstream in the rest of the world.’ This is one of the takeaways from a new report by the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies. Drawing on researchers in eight developing countries, the study tried to educate its readers in Europe about something many of them may never have considered: that China is actually pretty popular across the Global South.

This conclusion is hardly news for those who’ve followed African perceptions about China via polling outfits like Afrobarometer. Such surveys have for some time shown that China and the United States both enjoy relatively high and strikingly similar approval ratings in many African countries.

These findings sit uncomfortably with views coming from both Beijing and Western capitals. Our current polarised geopolitical moment rewards competition narratives and punishes nuance. Pundits on both sides benefit by presenting the two as complete opposites.

But there are striking similarities. Both sides present themselves as paragons of 21st century development and modernity, despite being powered by a dependence on hydrocarbons straight out of the 19th century. Both balance globe-circling ambitions with a narrow domestic political focus that ends at the borders of the nation state.

This means both sides’ rhetoric of aiding universal development needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. And of course, despite both the West and China rejecting the language of ‘choosing sides’, they would dearly like the Global South to choose sides – preferably theirs.

China and the US both enjoy relatively high, and similar, approval ratings in many African countries

Africa can gain from playing the sides off each other. But to do that, it needs to decide what it wants and what both sides can offer – especially in relation to China.

This is because Western power is already well known in Africa, and its ability to offer incentives could be plateauing. Western influence is emerging from a golden age of low interest rates, and low consumer prices and inflation, partly due to China’s long reign as a low-wage manufacturer. That window is now closing. Western powers didn’t use this opportunity to transition to more sustainable energy solutions, even as their middle class was hollowed out by offshoring and financialisation.

The result is staring politicians like United Kingdom Prime Minister Liz Truss in the face: sky-high energy prices due to the Ukraine crisis melding with a rapidly escalating climate crisis and a squeezed and resentful electorate.

No matter the rhetoric, selling Africa-focused infrastructure initiatives like the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment to voters in this climate will be tough. Western powers may still emerge as the game-changing infrastructure-funding development partners promised in these initiatives, but probably not soon.

Africa can gain from playing the West and China off each other, but needs to decide what it wants

With an economic slowdown and a rapidly ageing population, similar constraints are emerging in China. But there are key differences. First, the political will behind the Belt and Road Initiative overlaps significantly with the agenda of China’s private sector. The initiative aims to diversify sources of strategic commodities, export excess industrial capacity by finding new markets and build political alliances across the Global South. This overlap isn’t necessarily true in the West, where governments and conglomerates often pull in different directions.

Chinese companies’ skill sets are also frequently aligned with African realities. From building data networks in rural territories to selling cut-price cellphones, Chinese firms have honed in on African demand and found ways to provide at price points that frequently exclude competitors.

More broadly, China’s perceptions of Africa are filtered through its own development trajectory from poor backwater to global giant. This often translates into bullish views of African countries that some Western observers would write off as basket cases.

However, for Africa to gain from its relationship with China, it needs to face a few hard facts. First, China is in it for itself. Second, many Chinese actors are equally happy to fund/sell good products and bad products. The responsibility for getting the development-boosting infrastructure or appropriate technology Africa wants, lies squarely with Africans themselves.

Africa’s story could be about pioneering new forms of energy and development that alter the course of history

Bluntly put: if Africa wants positive outcomes from China, it needs to be more hard-nosed, prepared and ruthless than the Chinese. This means coming to the negotiating table with the same international legal teams as Chinese contractors. It means being uncompromising in contract language and willing to walk away from deals if they don’t serve inclusive development goals. It also means cracking down on any labour or environmental abuses by foreign companies.

To drive these bargains, African countries need to build a base of technocrats, cherish and include their civil society and youth contingents in project planning, and beef up the implementation of their own laws. It also means going after corrupt officials, publishing all loan contracts and working with neighbouring states to coordinate development plans rather than allowing Chinese entities to play them off against each other.

In broader terms, it means putting Africa at the centre of the African story. The continent should also withdraw its buy-in of geopolitical ‘New Cold War’ narratives and only indulge these powers to the extent that they serve African purposes. But that means knowing what African purposes are – not only in broad terms but in detail.

The current tensions between China and Western countries play out as competing narratives. If Africa doesn’t come up with its own narrative, it will be condemned to being a bit player in someone else’s story. That would be a shame. With the world’s youngest population, Africa’s story could be about how a continent of talented young people pioneered new forms of energy and development that radically altered the course of history.

That story is much more compelling than the arid coal-and-oil-and-geopolitics yarns spun by Beijing and Washington.

Cobus van Staden, Managing Editor, China Global South Project and Senior Research Affiliate, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)

This article was first published in Africa Tomorrow, the ISS African Futures blog.

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