US can’t deter 20 years of China-Africa cooperation

Source: Global Times Published: 2020/11/19 18:53:41

Ovigwe Eguegu

Editor's Note:

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The past two decades have seen continuing collaboration between the two sides. What do China-Africa joint works focus on? A US diplomat once noted, "For too long when investors have knocked on the door, and the Africans opened the door, the only person standing there was the Chinese," and the US wants to turn this around. What triggered the US to change its stance toward the continent? How do African observers see US' African policy? Ovigwe Eguegu (Eguegu), policy advisor at Beijing-based consultancy Development Reimagined and co-founder of think tank Afripolitika, shared his views with Global Times (GT).

GT: When commenting that a US ambassador warned Jamaica against installing mobile technology made by Chinese firms, you raised a question: "When Chinese diplomats got more proactive in dispelling false narratives about China, it was dubbed 'Wolf Warrior' diplomacy. What do we call US diplomacy that tries to shove its narrative down our throats?" How would you answer this question yourself?

From the way the so-called Wolf Warrior label has been applied to deride the assertiveness of Chinese diplomats, it appears the West expects Chinese diplomats to be passive and soft-spoken compared to their American counterparts. Not publicly challenge the false narratives being peddled by Western media and diplomats would be counter-intuitive.

Even the most outspoken Chinese diplomats still refrain from publicly lecturing policymakers of their host country on what policies to adopt, like their American counterparts so often do. As a result, there is growing frustration among senior political leaders in US-ally nations like Germany over the utterances of US diplomats. When Ambassador Richard Grenell announced his resignation in June 2020, German media described him as a "combative diplomat," which is disingenuous, because Grenell wasn't fighting false narratives about the US. But he repeatedly made statements about issues like the Nord Stream 2 Project that ought to be primarily Germany's internal affair. Even here in Africa, we see similar instances of diplomatic overreach from Ambassador Kyle McCarter, the US Ambassador to Kenya. 

This attitude is seen across the current US administration from the ambassadorial level - up to America's top diplomat Secretary Mike Pompeo - and best embodied by President Donald Trump himself, who in a recent phone conversation with Sudan's Prime Minister Hamdok and Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu off-handedly said Egypt could "blow up" the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) - even though the US is supposed to be a mediator in the conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt over the GERD. This dictum of intimidation, provocation and threats of violence as a way to extract concessions isn't new and has even been dubbed "Cowboy diplomacy." But so far, that approach seems to be a policy dead-end and has contributed to the isolation of the US diplomatically. 

GT: The US has been paying increasing attention to African countries lately and you once noted the goal is about China - not Africa. How do you define US African policy? 

As African countries gained independence, US engagement with Africa increased. This was primarily driven by ideological and political competition with the (former) Soviet Union as well as US demand for African commodities for its industries. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, coupled with the contraction of the US' manufacturing base, Africa was shifted to the back burner. This explains why the 1990s was a low point in US-Africa relations compared with prior decades. Africa simply lost its strategic relevance in the eyes of US foreign policy planners.

With the emergence of China as a global power and major economic player in Africa, US' interest in Africa was reignited. As we know, in international politics, attention is proportional to strategic interests. And those strategic interests for the US now are to counter China in Africa and across the world. When John Bolton was introducing the Trump administration's African Strategy in 2018, he proposed the administration's African strategy as a direct counter to Chinese and Russian "predatory practices" and influence in Africa.

When the Trump administration eventually rolled out its African Policy, tagged Prosper Africa Initiative, it was not received with much enthusiasm.  It also took 14 months after the announcement before Washington's top diplomat Pompeo made his first trip to Africa. Washington's interest in Africa is mostly driven by a great power competition, which doesn't encourage confidence on the African side. Add in other issues like Trump's insulting remark about Africa, and the $252 million funding cuts to Ebola response efforts in early 2018 - you'll understand why there is so much dissatisfaction facing Africa-US relations. Many Africans are hoping to see a change in attitude from the US going forward.

GT: Commenting on US efforts to garner allies against China, you noted, "Considering the needs of Africa, joining the US doesn't make sense." What does Africa need now?

Apart from working to improve the quality of governance, the continent has to focus on partnerships that work for Africa's interests, and partners that commit to working with us to overcome our challenges. And one of the major challenges facing the continent is the low coverage of key infrastructure classes, including energy, road and rail transportation, and water infrastructure.

And over the last 20 years, China has been the partner that has put its money where its mouth is. This is evident in Beijing committing $60 billion to Africa twice in six years. This has greatly helped in narrowing the funding gap needed to unlock Africa's potential. Which is why one can make the case that after the AU Summit, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation is the most important international conference for Africa. 

Aside from infrastructure development, value-added manufacturing is another area Africa looks to China for cooperation. The way African economies are integrated into the global economy hasn't changed much since the days of European colonialism, that is, suppliers of raw materials, and importers of finished goods. In some countries like Ethiopia, Chinese built Special Economic Zones are contributing to changing the story. 

The externalization of value addition is a real problem for African development. Having vast reserves of natural resources, Africa will always be in the natural resource supply chain, but so far we've always been at the bottom. One way China can come in is by supporting African countries with the technical expertise to climb up the supply chain from mere exporters to value-added manufacturing, especially in sectors where China is a big player. A good place to start is in helping Africa assume its place in the global battery race. Africa produces many of the battery minerals, and China is a big player in the value chain. 

In an international system of unequal national power, it is naive to expect absolute adherence to the principle of equal sovereignty. However, some major powers try more than others. This is one way Africa's cooperation with China differs from its relationship with of its other major partners like the US and Europe. Basically, China-Africa cooperation is based on mutually agreed principles guiding. This makes a lot of difference in that both sides have a blueprint to judge themselves and the other side. 

One such principle is noninterference in each other's internal affairs. This is seen when certain Western countries criticize the Chinese government for not speaking about human rights issues in some African countries, or when they expect African governments to speak on China's anti-terrorism policies in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In such instances, the West fails to understand that such logic goes against the spirit of China-Africa relationship.

GT: You've mentioned over the last 20 years that China has been building Special Economic Zones across Africa, while the US has been building military bases. Against this backdrop, the US still portrays China as a "military threat." What do you think are the reasons behind the US' moves?

There is no doubt that China's military power has grown tremendously in recent years. China's capacity to develop highly advanced weapons took many in Washington by surprise.

America has been at the top of the pecking order of every facet of modern society going back decades, which is why many historians refer to the last 100 years as the American century. So the very idea that another country can rise to be as big and as strong as the US comes as a shock and threat to many. 

While the US says its interest in Asia is for peace and security, in reality, it is all about countering China. If the US actually wants to strengthen peace, it will focus on facilitating the creation of a collective security architecture in Asia, as opposed to security blocs which the US is pushing. Recently Pompeo said the US hopes to "institutionalize" the so-called Quad grouping (US, Australia, India and Japan). He emphasized that Quad which currently is an informal dialogue is aimed at countering China's clout in the region.

The US is trying to convince the entire world that China is a military threat but at the same time senior officials in the Trump administration are also saying China lacks basing options for its missiles and lacks alliances. So not only is there a contradiction in the framing of China as a military threat, that narrative also goes against facts, and that is, China's rise over the last few decades to become the world's second biggest economy has been peaceful, this mustn't be ignored. Painting China as a military threat is how the US justifies inserting itself in the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, and its provocative military activities in the waters. 

Countries are refusing to toe Washington's line against China, despite the US efforts to build a coalition against China. This is because they know Washington's aggression toward China is built on fictional narratives. So when Indonesian Foreign Minister told Mike Pompeo, "We don't want to get trapped by this rivalry," she spoke the minds of many.  

Washington's new attitude toward China is against the backdrop of waning support in the US for the war on terror which has been ongoing for nearly 20 years, and has gulped $6.4 trillion and caused massive human losses. Many will argue that the US always needs a bogeyman to justify its extremely high defense budget. Thus, considering China's economic and military might, pushing the narrative of the Chinese threat makes it easier for US policy planners to justify the pentagon's gigantic budget.

The military threat narrative doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The better argument is that China is a threat to US' global economic hegemony. By providing an international trade architecture, technology, a vibrant market, a source of credit, and investment, China presents the world, particularly the global South, with a full spectrum of alternatives. This thereby makes it harder for the US to strangulate countries like Iran and Russia.

GT: As an African observer, how do you view the rising struggle between China and the US, and the decoupling theory between the two?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump was beating the drum of decoupling, without actually using the word decoupling. What he promised his voters was that he will bring back jobs from China, which means re-shoring supply-chain in the US. However, while some manufacturing jobs have left China, the trend hasn't been a return back to the US, but to Vietnam and India.

Decoupling was hyped up in the media just after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, China was swift to resume production and supply pandemic fighting materials such as masks and PPEs. Africa also started receiving donations from the Jack Ma Foundation even before inventories started running low. 

By and large, the talk about decoupling is coming from the US. As such, it isn't necessarily a global trend, but mainly the US decoupling from China. But by observing the resistance of US corporations to Washington's pressure to exit China, we might begin to understand that decoupling is not a market driven initiative, but part of a political agenda within the context of US-China rivalry.

China is within striking distance of becoming the biggest economy in the world, a position the US held for a long time. As such, there is a real effort to contain China, so in many ways China containment has been rebranded as decoupling. Case in point: the US crusade against Huawei called on countries to ban Huawei from their 5G infrastructure. So far, Washington has only managed to coerce a few of its allies, while the vast majority of the world has ignored and rejected US' agenda to get countries to ban Huawei from their 5G infrastructure.

African countries have ignored Huawei hysteria, not out of solidarity with Huawei or pressure from Beijing, but simply because banning Huawei goes against Africa's interests. Huawei products are widely popular across Africa, but since the talk of decoupling, Huawei's popularity in Africa is phrased as "dominance" which is a negative connotation to stir up anxiety. But you'll struggle to find one article that frames the popularity of US software giants like Microsoft's windows, as "dominance." Why should the popularity of US firms be seen as normal and the success of Chinese firms as a problem? 

The interdependence of the US and China in the global supply chain makes one skeptical that real decoupling is a worthwhile goal, or even feasible. But looking at it through the great power competition, what the US really wants is for China to give up its ambition to become a high-tech/knowledge driven economy, and go back to making toys and flip-flops. That's unacceptable for China, and it should be.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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