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In the New Era of “China Against the World” Where Does Africa Stand?

Activists of Gujarat's Karni Sena organization shout slogans while holding a poster with the image of Chinese President Xi Jinping during an anti-China demonstration in Ahmedabad on June 24, 2020. China and India have agreed to reduce tensions a week after their deadliest clashes in over 50 years. SAM PANTHAKY / AFP

Africa’s political importance to China is steadily rising as Beijing’s relations with a growing list of countries in Asia, Europe, and the Americas dangerously deteriorate. Conflict has already broken out between China and India, leaving Asia’s two largest powers bitterly divided. Even more worrisome is the increasingly toxic relationship between the United States and China, which many observers believe has settled into a new, more volatile era that foreshadows a potentially devastating military engagement between these two rival powers.

In Europe, public opinion of the Chinese has similarly plummeted in recent months in response to Beijing’s more aggressive (aka “Wolf Warrior”) diplomatic stance on the COVID-19 outbreak, faulty PPE, the mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and the Chinese incursion on Hong Kong sovereignty with this month’s introduction of a new national security law.

Also in Asia, China’s contested territorial claims over the South China Sea and islands in the East China Sea continue to roil ties with Japan and Southeast Asian states alike.

Then factor in China’s increasingly close ties with the U.S. and Europe’s foes in Iran and Russia and it becomes even more apparent that the current international order is facing its most serious test since it was founded at the end of the World War II. 

The timing of all this for Africa couldn’t be worse.

Confronted by a pandemic that has wrecked their economies, African leaders one after another have pleaded for the U.S. and China to leave them out of their dispute. African stakeholders are instead calling on these two rival powers for assistance in mitigating the effects of COVID-19 and providing meaningful debt relief. Regardless, African states are invariably being pulled into this emerging superpower stand-off, whether they want to or not.

When dozens of African countries sign United Nations letters that support controversial Chinese positions on issues like Hong Kong or Xinjiang, observers in Washington, D.C. see it as choosing sides. Similarly, when African leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa accuse the U.S. of being “clearly jealous” over Huawei’s technological superiority, that too is seen as partisan. Or when Wang Yi traveled to Egypt, still one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign assistance, and was warmly received after he laid out China’s policies in Xinjiang, it shouldn’t come as a tremendous surprise that a lot of U.S. stakeholders found that objectionable.

African leaders, so far, have been able to hold that middle ground between the U.S. and China. But that is going to be increasingly difficult the more they wade into these sensitive issues. African countries are also vulnerable to the geopolitical shocks as a more assertive China that come from the tectonic plates of geopolitics shifting due to China’s more assertive role in geopolitics.

For now, there’s very little indication that any of these issues gaining much traction within the national discourse in most African countries. That’s a shame because by the time the impact from this turmoil lands in Africa it’ll likely be too late to formulate an effective policy response.

Why Africa’s So Vulnerable to a Global Backlash Against China

  • TAKING SIDES: For now, the U.S., Europe, and others have largely looked the other way when dozens of African countries have aligned with Beijing at international fora like the United Nations Human Rights Council on sensitive issues like Hong Kong and Xinjiang. That patience could very well run out and countries that publicly align themselves with China’s controversial human rights and territorial claims could find themselves shut out by the U.S.
  • HUAWEI: The dilemma UK officials faced about being reliant on Huawei while the U.S. was threatening to cut off key supplies of technology components to the company should also raise concerns among African network operators. If the U.S. follows through with its threats to choke Huawei’s supply chains, that could have serious repercussions for Africa because it is now largely dependent on the Chinese telecom giant.
  • COLD WAR 2.0: The United States increasingly sees Africa as a theater of contention to challenge the Chinese, just as it was in the 20th century when the U.S. confronted the Soviet Union there. While there are no proxy wars underway, Africa policy in Washington today is nonetheless driven in large part by the desire to contain Chinese influence on the continent. Unless African governments become much more confident in asserting their own core strategic interests to their counterparts in both Beijing and Washington, there’s a genuine risk that they could once again get steamrolled by rival global powers.

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