China and the New African Great Game

A Trilateral Dialogue on the United States, China, and Africa
Conference Papers
May 13, 2013

There is a massive literature on China in Africa, and over the next few weeks I am going to be posting links to some of the better, more interesting resources in that regard. This particular Brookings conference paper, which frames a “trilateral” dialogue between the US, China, and Africa, is thought-provoking piece. Africa’s challenges are certainly large enough that they must be addressed by the locals and the world’s two largest powers, and even then, there is no guarantee that they would be addressed.

Despite points of light like South Africa, the continent seems to have fallen into something of a holding pattern. Progress remains, well, moderately paced. Poverty, AIDS, environmental degradation, and politics that put Byzantium to shame offer China a fertile field for political and commercial engagement, but the problems that hold the continent down remain intractable.

You could start a good fight at a cocktail party in Beijing by suggesting that China is just the latest boot on the collective neck of the people in Africa. Yes, the assertion is hyperbolic, but it raise the question of whether Beijing’s engagement has been any better for the people of Africa than colonial exploitation or the misguided foreign aid regime promulgated by the US since the 1960s. Indeed, a read through this paper offers the unappealing suggestion that just as we in the west are questioning the value of aid, China is doubling down on handouts. China, it seems, has not learned much about what works in Africa since its own ill-fated ventures there in the 1960s. If what China is practicing in Africa is not some variety of mercantilist neocolonialism, I would be pleased to know what to call it.

And the US is no white hat, here. In fact, it is starting to look like we have already passed the high-water mark of engagement with Africa beyond the ongoing terrorist hunt. The Obama-Hegel review of defense spending makes it apparent that the Department of Defense will gut the Africa Command (AFRICOM) in the coming years, and I would bet on the DoD standing down the command before 2020. As it must be: given the resources available the US is arguably best off returning to a hemispheric strategy, allowing Beijing (and possibly Delhi) to fall into the Imperial Overreach trap.

As recent events in Libya and Mali demonstrate, Europe remains better positioned historically and otherwise to engage in Africa than the US. But ongoing economic issues – and Russia’s growing adventurism – means that the focus of European defense will most likely shift east again, even if the economies of Europe and Africa become increasingly interlocked through immigration and trade.

The real story for Africa will be how to balance the growing influence of China with that of India. The Middle East, while the destination of many African exports, is (as Europe) set on its own Via Dolorosa as the politics of the region evolve. India and China, with robust economies and growing competition, look to be the next players in the African Great Game.

The question now is what form that great game will take. Brookings is appropriately concerned that the continent will become increasingly dependent on its emerging market trading partners. The nations of Africa need political stability, economic growth, and a population able to spend money. Those things will not happen if Africa once again finds itself on the wrong end of a mercantile economy, in particular if corrupt elites and bureaucracies can lean on their opportunistic Chinese and Indian patrons for support.

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