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Africa Isn’t Alone Trying to Find a Space in Between the U.S. and China

An official wearing a face mask stands next to member flags during the special Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in Hanoi on April 14, 2020. Manan VATSYAYANA / POOL / AFP

Last week’s announcement by the U.S. government that it will add 24 more Chinese companies to its so-called entities list was probably met with dread and concern in capitals throughout the global south.

After all, these companies, most notably China Communications Construction Corporation, are deeply invested in countries throughout Asia, Africa, the Americas and beyond. Given that political leaders in these regions already have their hands full simultaneously trying to combat a pandemic while dealing with a spiraling economic crisis, you can understand why they may not be thrilled that some of the Chinese companies building their critical infrastructure are now in Washington’s crosshairs.

While the latest U.S. sanctions are specifically targeted on companies that are involved in Beijing’s efforts to exert control in the South China Sea, these new restrictions represent a further deterioration of U.S.-China ties that threatens to ensnare developing countries who want nothing more than to stay out of this conflict.

That’s not going to be easy. This is an entirely new conflict and although it involves superpowers it’s nothing like the previous Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union. So African leaders are going to have look for new points of reference to guide their policies as they try to balance critical interests with both Washington and Beijing.

Their traditional compass for international relations in Europe will be of no use here. Instead, African foreign ministries should look to Asia for guidance. Countries like Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia have vastly more experience straddling the U.S.-China divide than anywhere else in the world. Like most African countries, all Asian nations depend on China as their primary trading partner, yet they also have divergent interests in other areas, particularly security, where they engage the U.S. (Korea, Japan, Australia, Taiwan and so on.) 

African leaders, policymakers, and scholars should immediately reach out to their respective counterparts in ASEAN and throughout the Asia-Pacific region to benefit from decades of experience on how to manage this delicate balance.

Failure to learn from the experience of others could catastrophic.

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