China: The bread-and-butter partner as African investment exceeds US

By Cobus van Staden
Posted on Monday, 2 May 2022 16:21

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Kenyan counterpart Raychelle Omamo bump elbows during a news conference in the coastal city of Mombasa
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Kenyan counterpart Raychelle Omamo bump elbows during a news conference in the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya January 6, 2022. REUTERS/Joseph Okanga

This week, my colleague CAP Editor in Chief Eric Olander unearthed a startling statistic: China’s trade with Africa so far this year already exceeds all trade between Africa and the United States for the whole of 2021.

Think about that – these haven’t exactly been a smooth few months, trade-wise. Lockdowns in China have kept more than a quarter of the world’s container ships idling off its eastern seaboard. Of the remaining ships, several are stuck in Ukrainian harbors due to underwater mines. The aftermath of floods in Durban is holding back millions of tons of cobalt and copper ore from the DRC and Zambia. And that’s only been the last two weeks – we’re also still dealing with a pandemic.

The issue of trade – or more specifically, its lack – also looms over Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the Biden administration’s newest initiative to win friends in Asia. The IPEF will align norms and boost cooperation across various fields, including digital trade, decarbonization, infrastructure, and supply chains.

The one thing not offered is enhanced access to U.S. markets. One Southeast Asian official likened the deal to a fried egg without a yolk.

The problem is that in the post-Trump (and, with elections looming, maybe pre-Trump again) era, free trade agreements, especially with Asian developmental economies set up for mass production, is political poison at home. No American politician wants to be accused of sending American jobs overseas.

Trade tremors

At the same time, anxieties about Chinese influence in places like the Solomon Islands is also leading to an increasingly geostrategic view of the Global South. The effect is that U.S. influence becomes lopsided, while China becomes more and more central as a trade partner. As the U.S. brings guns, China becomes a bread-and-butter partner.

This is true for trade, but also for development. The dilemma for Global South countries is that their own developmental choices will become geopoliticized. As the lines between the two sides are etched more deeply, areas that in a better world would have triggered cooperation will become deeply politicized. ICT provision in regions like Africa and the Pacific Islands has already gone that way.

As we ramp up to COP27, the next climate change summit taking place in Egypt in November, Africa’s green transition presents a unique challenge to Western powers. After all, the Ukraine crisis has starkly revealed that the countries that advocate the most stridently for imposing climate norms on the Global South are also the ones most hopelessly addicted to Russian hydrocarbons.

At the same time, creeping rightwing influence throughout rich Northern democracies is going to make it harder and harder to allocate hundreds of billions of dollars for climate adaptation in the global south, despite all the fanfare of Build Back Better World and Global Gateway.

That means like it or not, China will be a key partner in this transition. Boston University this week updated their database of Chinese loans to Africa. While the lending has fallen sharply, significant loans were still approved. And guess for what? Of the eleven new loans, eight were for ICT and electrification projects.

Ukraine has allowed China to play into the Global South’s discomfort at being made to choose sides. Western attempts to further ratchet up geopolitical pressure on development could make these countries’ choices for them.

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