What do these geopolitical shifts harbinger for our own strategic interests in the Indian Ocean? Any reshuffle of some magnitude, presents risks but also opens opportunities
By Jan Arden
According to a recent analysis of the Observer Research Foundation (August 2021), China has, since the nineties, emerged as Africa’s biggest bilateral trading partner, its biggest bilateral lender, as well as one of the biggest foreign investors in the continent. “Chinese companies have entered almost all African markets. Today there are more than 1000 of them operating in Africa; some one million people of Chinese descent reside in the continent…”
What can Africa expect from the Biden administration? Pic – The Africa Report.com
At a time when multilateral and Western institutions were either reticent or too conditional on a variety of non-financial and governance issues, Chinese investments, private or from State Owned Enterprises, came with few strings and found easy takers. Dozens of articles and papers from various western foundations have this century raised alarm bells about debt diplomacy, “Chinese neocolonialism”, a “naked raw material grab”, but these were often seen as peeved reactions from those chaffing that the “preserves” of former colonial powers were turning increasingly to Beijing for aid and assistance on scales that would have been unheard of from more other traditional sources.
Over the recent decades, leaders of some 54 African countries had then tended to regard with sympathy China as a country that had itself only recently emerged from the economic backwaters of the 20th century and was willing to use its formidable treasure-chest to help kindred brothers desperate for the massive infrastructure of roads, railways, ports and airports required to begin placing Africa on the radar of world trade and economic development.
In return, those economic ties provided welcome allies and a useful clout to China in international instances, particularly when the former US President Donald Trump went into anti-NATO rants or demoralizing anti-Europe spins that left a gaping vacuum for the West in international spheres and instances which many tried to exploit. That capital of sympathy, carefully nurtured, was particularly valuable to support or avoid backlash at China’s own regional designs over Taiwan and the South China seas disputes, its expansive military and naval build-up, its flagship Belt and Road Initiative and the not-so-subtle attempts at bullying neighbourly states like Vietnam, Philippines or India in the Himalayan regions.
To come back to our African realities, Africa was for long in a geopolitical division of work, clearly left to European capitals, notably Paris, London and enlarged later to the EU Commission, to represent and defend western influence and interests. As for the USA, beyond the AGOA trade preference agreement, whose real impact many analysts say has been globally modest, Africa remained below the radar, when it was not the object of the most derisive comments from Donald Trump.
Tribute must be paid to the EU’s first attempt to have a coherent global diplomatic, investment and economic partnership strategy in place since 1975 with the largely successful preferential trade agreements known as the EU-ACP Lome accords, reviewed every five years and the broader successor agreements signed in Cotonou about 2000 and updated in 2005 and 2010. It has been extended to November 2021, unless the pandemic has changed deadlines.
In parallel, the European Development Fund has now been restructured this year, as our diplomats will be aware, regrouping under one umbrella the various instruments of financial assistance over the 2021-2027 period, with some 30 billion Euros to be earmarked for projects in sub-Saharan Africa.
The European Investment Bank (EIB) channels enormous funds on its side to private firms in the African region. According to the same Observer Research Foundation paper, the EIB handed out almost as much in grants between 2013 and 2018 as China did in loans for Belt and Road Initiative projects (414 billion euro vs. 434 billion euro).
It would be difficult therefore to contend that the combined scales of EU financial assistance and investment to the African continent was far below the scales of their Chinese counterparts. If there were competitive issues to be addressed, they might be more about branding the EU investments and global partnership outreach to Africa and, secondly, make those investments more coherent within a strategic framework.
That seems to be the double rationale behind the announcement by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during her State of the Union speech on September 15 of an EU Global Gateway Initiative. Although short on specifics, the thrust was clearly spelt out: “We are good at financing roads,” von der Leyen said, “but it does not make sense for Europe to build a perfect road between a Chinese-owned copper mine and a Chinese owned harbour. We have to get smarter when it comes to these kinds of investments.”
In other words, the EU needs to start thinking more strategically about its presence and investments in the African continent, taking account of the achievements and occasional difficulties encountered by the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative with its 20-year headstart.
A parallel event took place this past week that dovetails with the EU realisation, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on a first important American dignitary visit to several key African states, beginning with Kenya and ending in Nigeria and Senegal. This marks a noticeable shift in US policy under the Biden-Harris administration towards Africa, no longer delegated to EU and no longer below the radar.
In unveiling the Biden administration’s Africa policy, Mr Blinken said the US will focus its engagement on five key areas: enhancing trade; dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic; climate change; promoting democracy and peace and security. At a key speech on US-Africa policy to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria, the top US diplomat announced that the United States will host a summit of African leaders to further deepen ties with the continent.
If the US diplomat’s expression “Africa is the future” signals that the continent will no longer be ignored by the US, dovetailing with the EU Global Gateway branding exercise, what do these geopolitical shifts harbinger for our own strategic interests in the Indian Ocean where we bond with other allies like India and France?
Any reshuffle of some magnitude, presents risks but also opens opportunities. Our foreign and diplomatic services, although deprived of a full-time Minister, should be hard at work deciphering the western intents and find useful avenues to advance our objectives on issues that matter most to us, from Chagos sovereignty to Indo-Pacific security, the exploitation of our marine resources while participating meaningfully in the global environment initiatives.
* Published in print edition on 23 November 2021
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