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How the US-China conflict over Huawei could play out in Africa

Cobus van Staden
By Cobus van Staden
Senior China-Africa researcher, South African Institute of International Affairs

Cobus is the head of research and analysis at the China Africa Project (www.chinaafricaproject.com), an independent non-partisan media platform dedicated to exploring every facet of China's engagement in Africa where he also co-hosts the weekly China in Africa Podcast and edits the China Africa Project's daily email newsletter.

Posted on Thursday, 18 July 2019 16:18

Technology, particularly that of Chinese telecoms firm Huawei, is a major point of conflict between Washington and Beijing. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

In the future, when we look back on the 2010s, we might well identify it as the decade when tech became irreversibly entangled with geopolitics.

It was the decade of Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and Facebook-driven election interference. It is also the decade when the full force of the US government focused on one company: Chinese telecom firm Huawei.

The conflict between the United States and Huawei didn’t originate with the Trump administration. The US Congress started expressing concern about so-called backdoors in its network as far back as 2012. However, US President Donald Trump put the company at the centre of his administration’s ongoing trade war with China. In the process, he moved mobile networks’ evolution from 4G to 5G from the commercial to the political realm. It wasn’t just about technical specs or corporate competition anymore. The very concept of technology as a driver of development has become politicised.

The result is a rapidly widening schism between the global north and the global south. While one can’t say that all developed countries are on Trump’s side in the conflict (key allies like Germany and the UK aren’t completely on board), the debate around Huawei in the global north largely revolves around cybersecurity. Meanwhile, in the global south, the debate is framed differently: around development.

The African battleground

Africa is a key example. Building data networks across its expanse is hard and expensive work. Huawei provides everything from undersea internet cables to mobile handsets, and it comes packaged with financing from Chinese state banks via such initiatives as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative. This makes it hard to beat on a continent where most of the population is still trying to get online. It’s not surprising that Huawei has built the majority of Africa’s 4G capability.

It also makes it much harder for African leaders to simply block the company. In many cases, the choice isn’t between Huawei and another contractor, but between Huawei and no internet at all. No wonder that few African officials have followed their northern counterparts in distancing themselves from Huawei.

However, that might be understating the case. It isn’t simply that African leaders are maintaining an embarrassed silence or muted, grudging support. Over the past few months we’ve seen much more full-throated endorsements from Africa. Take the African Union (AU), which recently renewed its memorandum of understanding with the company despite allegations that Huawei equipment enabled the transfer of data from the AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa to China.

South Africa sides with China

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa recently entered this fray. After making it clear at the recent G20 summit in Osaka that South Africa disapproves of the trade war and remains committed to working with China, he subsequently expressed explicit support for Huawei. Speaking at a Johannesburg conference on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Ramaphosa said: “They’re jealous that a Chinese company called Huawei has outstripped them. And because they’ve been outstripped, they must now punish that company and use it as a pawn in the fight they have with China.”

One aspect of this gauntlet throwing is ideological. The South African Communist Party (a formal alliance partner of Ramaphosa’s African National Congress party) has framed support for Huawei in old-timey Communist terms as a blow against global US hegemony. However, the main driver of the comments is capitalism, in the form of South Africa’s four major telecom companies: MTN, Vodacom, Cell C and Telkom. The first two are major players in Africa, acting as mobile service providers throughout the continent. Huawei’s component and service provision are key to this business. While in public they have refused to comment on the trade war, saying they will follow the government’s lead, they have apparently made it clear that complying with the trade war will hurt profits.

What is notable is that Ramaphosa didn’t limit his comments to simply stating these realities. Rather, he chose to add to a narrative of the United States trying to contain Chinese development out of jealousy. This narrative has surfaced in South Africa’s tech press before, but it is of course the most prominent in China. Ramaphosa went on to say that South Africa’s own development will be hurt by the trade war as a whole and by being potentially deprived of Huawei’s 5G technology.

The importance of controlling narratives

What does it mean for an African president to back this containment narrative? Some might see it as a victory for Chinese propaganda in Africa. I would characterise it differently. I tend to see it as a sign that the West is losing control of the narrative of development. In the wake of the Cold War, the United States, other Western governments and multilateral institutions like the World Bank could tell the story of development in their own terms: a story of deregulated private sector-led development where government stepped out of the way and everybody thrived.

The rise of China radically challenges that narrative. It doesn’t only raise alternative models of development where the government or party takes a central role, but it reframes the entire global south’s relationship to the original Western account of development. Far from being Western, capitalist development can now be reframed as something that has to be protected from US or Western interference. Given that Africa’s own historical encounters with the West have been frequently unhappy, it is not difficult to imagine that this alternative narrative will find listeners.

The recent G20 summit was the occasion for President Trump to take some of the heat off Huawei. However, depending on how the negotiations go, he could dial it back up at any moment. In the short term, this will be bad news for Huawei, and the Chinese bottom line. However, the restrictions could also motivate Huawei to double down on its engagement in Africa. After all, it is a massive emerging market with several rapidly growing economies and more than a billion people eager to buy smartphones. Positioning the US as a jealous onlooker trying to contain growth could be very profitable indeed. As Ramaphosa said: “We want 5G, and we know where we can get 5G.”

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