What the West Gets Wrong About China in Africa

Tom Harper is an Assistant Professor at Neijiang Normal University and a researcher for The China-Africa Project who focuses on China’s relations with the third world. The article represents the author’s opinions, and does not necessarily reflect those of the Chollima Report

China’s growing role in Africa has caused consternation from both European and American governments, who now seek to counter Beijing’s advances.  The latest phase of this push comes in the visit of the Trump administration’s hawkish Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to several African nations. Already on his destination of Senegal, Pompeo has taken several swipes at Chinese policies in the continent, most notably the warning that Chinese projects are “debt traps” and accusing the lending of facilitating corruption and the rule of law.  This ties into the wider discourse of China as a neo-imperial power, seeking to ensnare the continent and pillage its resources just as the rapacious European empires of the 19th century had done.

However, these warnings, as well as this image of China’s African policies, are the result of a fundamental misreading of China’s push.  As a result, any policies based on this reading will be flawed due to several core errors.

If not China, then Who?

In keeping with the warnings from many Western officials, Pompeo’s is loaded with criticism of China’s African policies but will offer little in the way of a plausible alternative to Beijing. This has also been true for much of the criticism levelled at China’s Belt and the Road Initiative, which has also been heavy on the criticism of it but has so far been unable to codify a feasible alternative to it.

These warnings appear to have gained little traction in the developing world, where local elites continue to sign up for Chinese initiatives despite the warnings over debt traps.  This is due to the fact that China is now an integral part of Africa’s economic landscape, and asking African nations not to trade with China would mean considerable economic damage for little discernible benefit.  Such a problem has also been apparent for Washington’s stalled campaign against Huawei which has made similar demands and will result in the same problems, with the telecommunications firm having established the first 5G networks on the continent in South Africa and Nigeria.

It is the offer of a convincing alternative to China that would be one of the best ways to counter China’s influence in the continent.  As the Nigerian commentator, Ovigwe Egugu claimed, many African nations would welcome this, especially those who feel that China has too much leverage over them.  Instead, the Trump administration has ‘muddied the water with lectures to compensate for their poor policies’.  This has been one of the most glaring flaws in the current response to China’s African policies.

Winning Hearts and Minds

Another issue comes in the form of soft power.  This has surfaced with the success of Bong Joon Ho’s film, Parasite, which has led pundits to ask why China is seemingly incapable of possessing soft power like its smaller neighbour, South Korea.  What these pundits overlook is that China’s soft power initiatives are a very different creature to the traditional notions of soft power, and it is these differences that have enhanced China’s appeal to Africa and the developing world.

Rather than promoting China’s popular culture, Chinese soft power lies in China’s prowess in education and economics as well as China’s traditional culture.  This has seen China become the most popular destination for overseas study among students from the Anglophone nations of Africa as well as the promotion of the Chinese model of economic development, the appeal of which has been furthered by the failings of the established Washington Consensus.  Ironically, the biggest advocates of the Chinese model has not been Chinese officials, but rather the local elites, with the former being largely sceptical over whether the Chinese model can be duplicated outside of China.

Nevertheless, China’s soft power push has been successful in enhancing China’s appeal to African nations.  While Chinese soft power initiatives, such as those of the Confucius Institute, appear to have had little success in Europe and North America, the same cannot be said for much of the developing world, with China being viewed positively in the Middle East and Latin America as well as in Africa.  This has granted China an appeal that goes beyond ‘cold hard cash, in the words of a report on the BRI by the Economist magazine, and it is this appeal that has been integral in building consent for Chinese projects.

The Three Worlds Theory Reborn:  The Role of Shared Experiences 

One of the core advantages of China’s African policies lie in the roots of China’s relationship with the African states, which came in its push to promote the Maoist brand of communism during the Cold War.  While the attempts to replicate the Chinese revolution were of limited success, it has granted China a long- term relationship with many of these states, which is an advantage that few other nations possess.  In contrast, many Western nations have been hobbled by the contentious legacy of European colonialism, which has hindered their warnings over Chinese neo-imperialism.  It is these experiences that have also been as integral to the conceptualisation of the Third World as the region’s economic status has been.

As with the Chinese model of economic development, China’s experiences of development has played a notable role in legitimising Chinese policies, which has made it easier for China to build consent for them.  The utilisation of these experiences have enabled China to gain a strong foothold in the continent, an aspect that has often been overlooked by the established perception that China’s gains were simply due to Beijing bribing corrupt nations to buy influence.           

China’s vision

What has furthered China’s appeal to African nations is that it is one of the few nations that has a compelling vision for Africa’s future.  This was apparent in Djibouti’s rebuke to French overtures and warnings over Chinese ‘debt diplomacy’ in responding that France had ‘no money and no vision for Africa’s future’.  It is this lack of vision that has been one of the main issues for the current response to Chinese influence in Africa.  This has been further impeded by the extension of the Trump administration’s travel ban to several African nations, most notably Nigeria, alongside earlier derogatory remarks about these nations.  While this plays well to Trump’s domestic audience, it has the opposite effect for African audiences, who are likely to move further into China’s orbit.

The attraction of China’s vision has been expressed by the local elites, who have often echoed Chinese talking points.  This was apparent in the rhetoric of South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, who invoked the China Dream in his vision for the country’s future.  The greatest success of China’s push in Africa is that it has been able to turn the local elites into the biggest advocates of Chinese policies.

While it is easy to talk about countering China in Africa, implementing such a response is not so easy.  If European and American policymakers are truly serious about doing so, they need to acknowledge the reality of China’s appeal to African nations and offer an equally attractive alternative.  After all, China’s appeal is not confined to Africa, as the BRI has demonstrated.  It is the issue of vision that will be one of the core determinants of the global struggle for influence and fighting this 21st century competition with 20th century Cold War tactics cannot end in success.