The narrative of globalization during the last two hundred years has primarily been a western-centric tale. Globalization, as it erupted after 1945, remains closely linked to the colonialist agenda of the West. Now there is a new storyboard about globalization: namely, one crystalized around the Silk Road project, a Chinese vision of future globalization where the West is at best an offshoot. It is also one where the new centre will indeed be the Middle Kingdom. Beijing is mounting this Silk Road project through the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, where Africa will be part of this new ambitious development.
US Geopolitical Presence
From a geopolitical perspective, China‘s ever-growing presence on the African continent is not fortuitous. Indeed, the U.S. has never paid much political attention to the fate of Africa (except in terms of trade and investments as well as regarding anti-terrorism perspective – mostly in the Sahel and North African countries). If one goes back to the 2008 – 2016 Obama presidency, already under Obama’s auspices with the Power Africa initiative, not much U.S. geopolitical presence had been felt, and even less nowadays under the current Trump administration.
However, from an economic perspective, the U.S. is one of the leading influences on the African continent representing some 13.5% of inward investment projects. In other words, Africa has never been part of America’s political chessboard (despite the fact that a significant portion of its population is of African origin), and has instead always been – ever since the 16th century – part of the European sphere of influence. However, Europe is nowadays too busy managing its own domestic political problems (even though France and Belgium still keep some influence), thus leaving a vacuum of power to a rising power – China. For the African continent, the BRI is not only potentially a better link to the market of the Middle Kingdom, but also to the Middle Eastern and European markets. This promise of Chinese-funded infrastructure has raised African interest in the initiative, even though some Africans have reservations about the rise of Chinese influence. As an illustration, the go-ahead in 2017 of a new Chinese-funded rail network, which will link the interior of Kenya to the BRI port of Mombasa on the country’s coast, disclosed this quandary.
BRI in Africa
In essence, China’s BRI has two African hubs: one alongside the Mediterranean Sea – Egypt – and another at Africa’s Eastern shore – Kenya. But Chinese-financed rail and communication networks are also connecting other African countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Djibouti to the BRI pathway. Indeed, Djibouti, the hub of China’s first overseas military base, is fundamental to fighting piracy along the African leg of the BRI sea route, and thus safeguards the trade with China in this region. Other African countries of interest to China are South Africa and Nigeria. In practice, since 2005 China’s footprint in Africa is evidenced by a total of 293 Foreign Direct Investment projects on the continent representing an aggregated investment volume of roughly $66bn, of which $32bn was invested in 2014 alone.
Regarding trade volumes, in 2016 China’s exports to Africa stood at $83bn, while imports from the continent totalled $54bn (Source: China Daily). China exports a vast number of capital and consumer goods to Africa but essentially imports commodities such as minerals, oil, and other natural resources. Beijing’s embracement of the African continent in the BRI means the continent faces an entirely new set of opportunities but also some predicaments. On the positive side, some Eastern African countries already see the incursion of Chinese investments in manufacturing and infrastructure as a way to address Africa’s deficiencies and to position their nations as future manufacturing and logistics hubs that could serve not only the African continent but also Europe and the Middle East.
Take, for example, the eastern African country, Mozambique, a country that has been ravaged by civil wars (such as in 1977). Recently, Mozambique discovered natural gas a couple of miles off its coast. While not officially stamped as a BRI country, Mozambique is going to benefit from BRI-related shipping and port expansion, supporting the export of its natural gas to China. The advantages to Mozambique here seem to have a net positive balance. Nevertheless, even with all this hope, there is a lingering fear that Africa’s future will be perpetually postponed just like under the West’s patronizing Africa’ policies.
Indeed, this relationship with China also highlights difficult sentiments that Africans have when looking at Beijing’s growing influence in the continent. Some Africans complain about harsh working conditions at Chinese firms. They also fear that the BRI will bring more Chinese products (at the expense of goods manufactured by local African producers) as well as more Chinese workers (already more than one million in Africa at the expense of African workers). Furthermore, several African economists fret that these BRI-related infrastructure projects are going to cause a massive new debt mountain, and thus will undermine domestic development priorities and make the continent a debtor, or vassal, of China.
The West and Africa
Additionally, there is also a big concern about whether or not the BRI will lead to an increase in the poaching of African wild animals to satisfy the needs of Chinese consumers. Some critics even cast doubt whether the BRI is attainable at all. But, in a sense, the visionary stroke in relation to the BRI still stands tall in contrast to the West’s current relative indifference. Indeed, for all the agitation in the West about “losing” the African continent to Beijing, Western authorities seem naively unaware of Africa’s profound exhaustion with these same Western countries.
There is a widespread sense in Africa that the West is incapable of breaking out of its condescending view toward Africa; seeing the continent only as a set of headaches to solve (i.e. famine, civil war, epidemics, etc.). In other words, there is a tangible ‘African fatigue’ with the West’s prejudice towards aid, its aversion of African boat people and its obsessions with disease and military drones. There is also a sense that the problem of Western racism is intractable. Now, this is not to say that China is not racist, but Africa is willing to give a chance to Beijing as Africans are now fed up with Westerners (mostly Europeans).
Africans also see that the Chinese are cash-rich and that Beijing is not going to teach moral lessons to African governments (in other words, Beijing will likely not interfere in Africa’s internal affairs). Tragically, apart from a handful of close observers, many investors in Europe tend to look down on Africa economically speaking, despite the fact that the continent is reporting strong performances. In fact, the return on foreign investment is far higher in Africa than in any other developing region in the world, highlighting its enormous potential. Interestingly, China is not the only country investing heavily in Africa; many other Asian-Pacific countries are also funding major infrastructure projects in the continent, such as India and Japan. For example, in the summer of 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced $30bn would be provided to fund infrastructure in Africa, such as building several electricity generation projects and upgrading local urban transport systems and ports.