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China and Africa: can the West learn anything?

China's increasing influence in the Global South, particularly in Africa, has become a prominent feature over the last thirty years, marked by consistent diplomatic overtures from Chinese foreign ministers to the continent. In this article, Linda Calabrese provides a critical analysis of how Western nations have responded to China's ascendance in Africa.

China's increasingly strong relationship with the rest of the Global South, and especially with Africa, is hard to ignore. For the past 30 years, every Chinese foreign minister’s first diplomatic visit of the year has been to Africa. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) forum held in Beijing in October 2023 saw the participation of 23 heads of state and government, the majority of which came from low and middle-income countries (LMICs), including five from Africa. Similarly the BRICS, of which China is part, welcomed six new members, of which four are LMICs and two are African.

Many observers in the UK, US and Europe find this worrisome. Western media and researchers have framed China’s increased economic and political engagement with Africa as a new Cold War, or a new Scramble for Africa. But while China’s perception in the West is largely negative, the story in Africa is quite different, and China does not get nearly as much of the negative press it receives in the UK, Europe or the US. Many in Africa view China more favourably than Western countries, including their former colonial powers; and deem China a valuable partner and a source of investment, development, and trade opportunities.

This positive view of China stems from the fact that China’s approach when it comes to Africa is markedly different from that of the West. First, China positions itself as a developing country, on par with African nations rather than above them. While this self-definition is widely questioned, it still shapes China’s relationship with Africa, where the country posits as a business partner and a peer, not a donor. Second, the burgeoning growth of Chinese investment in Africa demonstrates that China is not afraid to spend its money on the continent, where Western companies nowadays rarely dare to invest, and where Western donors’ funds have been drying up. Third, China’s stated non-interference in African affairs, together with its ‘no strings attached’ approach to funding, has been appreciated by African leaders. While China’s actions in Africa may be a way to achieve political influence or to garner consensus and UN votes, the reality is that these actions are very much appreciated by many African countries which have long been neglected by many of their so-called ‘traditional partners’.

Western countries, unfortunately, took the worst approach possible when responding to the rise of China’s popularity in Africa. Rather than focusing on strengthening their partnership with African countries, western nations concentrated on countering China. The examples are countless. Infrastructure financing initiatives such as the EU’s Global Gateway and the G7’s Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment emerged after the BRI, and appeared to be a response to it, rather than to a genuine concern for the status of infrastructure on the continent. The US’ Digital Transformation with Africa programme seems more focused on replacing Huawei and other Chinese digital infrastructure providers rather than offering the best solution to bridge the digital divide for African countries.

This ‘Countering China in Africa’ approach is extremely flawed, as it stems from a misleading understanding of the reality. First, it fails to recognise the agency of African people and their governments. There is plenty of research showing that African countries are well able to manage their relations with all parties, and benefit from engaging with China, the West and all their other partners. Second, it implicitly suggests that Africa is ‘the West’s partner’, or better yet ‘its backyard’ – something that belongs to the West, and that China is taking away from it. This view of Africa shows a complete lack of historical awareness, especially by the former colonial powers who were responsible for the real ‘scramble for Africa’. A better approach for western countries should be one where they form a real partnership with African countries, acknowledging and respecting the mutual interests in the relationship, rather than making the continent another battlefield where to fight their war with China.

In this story

Linda Calabrese

Linda Calabrese

PhD Student

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