Zheng He, an eminent 15th century Chinese explorer, set foot on the northern coasts of Kenya a long time before Columbus discovered the United States. There are records of trade between Chinese merchants and the Africans who exchanged exotica like ivory and zebras for Chinese goods. Indeed, there exists a history of relations between the two which was cemented by Mao Zedong in the 20th century via investments in African infrastructure. Since the beginning of the 21st century, however, the engagement between Africa and Beijing on all levels of communication has put centuries of past interaction to shame. The Chinese-African relationship is causing ripples in the geo-political and commercial arenas of a continent which was neglected by the West.
The Western imagination puts Africa on two divergent extremes. On one hand, it is an endless supply of slaves and natural treasures up for the taking. While on the other, it is in need of salvation, a host to deprived and destitute souls where the West can fulfil their fantasies of missionary philanthropy.
As competition between the European giants started to intensify, Africa served as a bounty which was divided among the colonizers. Colonization of the continent rose from 10 percent to over 90 percent between 1870 and 1914.
Initially, Africa was to the West a convenient source of slaves as their demand for labour grew due to colonization. Africans were brought in bulk to the so called New World and debased by the radicalized slavery institution. As competition between the European giants started to intensify, Africa served as a bounty which was divided among the colonizers. Colonization of the continent rose from 10 percent to over 90 percent between 1870 and 1914. However, as time progressed and the Western societies started to mature after having had their fill nonetheless, Africa evolved into a place where people could fulfil their saviour dreams.
With the dawn of the 21st century, Africa was beginning to be perceived as a lost cause. The Economist ran an article, “The Hopeless Continent” in which it blamed poor institutional and governance structure for the damage in Africa and considered it beyond repair. However, this line of view would be contested in the years to come by the rising power of China as Africa became central to its strategic interests.
Beijing used various tools and strategies of modern day imperialism ranging from trade and investment to loans and aid. The trade between the two surpassed $160 billion in 2015 from a rather negligible value at the beginning of the century. China further signed infrastructure contracts in excess of $70 billion in Africa; and all of this with the loans provided by the Chinese banks to African nations, which are incidentally more than what the World Bank has to offer.
The West has cast much doubt over the intentions of Beijing and the recent investments in Africa are often seen through the lens of cynicism. Indeed, many aspects of China’s involvement in the continent can be painted that way. As is the case with pretty much most of the global ties, China’s engagement with Africa is not completely defined by altruism. It is rather driven by Beijing’s own interests in the continent. The inclusion of East Africa in the Belt and Road (OBOR) project lends enough weight to this argument. For China, the success of the OBOR initiative is pertinent since its quest for regional and global hegemony depends upon it. This success largely hinges on the ability of African nations to provide adequate security and an enabling environment for the project to realise its potential.
It is, however, worth mentioning that China’s treatment of Africa has been unlike that of the West. Beijing sees Africa as a long-term business partner rather than a continent in need of a saviour. By avoiding the missionary vehemence as exhibited by the West in the past, China has engaged with Africa in mutually beneficial endeavours and this interaction has borne fruits. The torrent of Chinese investments aided the African countries in averaging 5.4% of economic growth between 2000 and 2010. This growth rate is expected to be maintained if not improved upon considering the recent $60 billion investment pledged by Beijing in the continent.
Beijing sees Africa as a long-term business partner rather than a continent in need of a saviour. By avoiding the missionary vehemence as exhibited by the West in the past, China has engaged with Africa in mutually beneficial endeavours and this interaction has borne fruits. The torrent of Chinese investments aided the African countries in averaging 5.4% of economic growth between 2000 and 2010.
The time is now ripe for Africa to move out of the fringes and take a more central position in global economy. The enormity of its land, a booming and young population, and a period of rapid growth will ensure that Africa be the key for the economic and political giants of our day. For too long, Africa had been neglected by much of the world and dismissed as a hopeless case. China’s entrance has shoved the continent into the spotlight and shifted the paradigm in which Africa has traditionally been imagined.
In the past, the West boasted a monopoly being holders of wealth and technology. The African states were forced to pander in order to gain access to either one or both of these as the alternative required them to keep waddling in poverty and desolation. China’s presence in Africa provided them with a viable alternative- one that is exclusive of Western interference. Moreover, as more states like India and Brazil seek to gain influence in the region, African states find themselves in a rather unique position where they face various strategic options better than ever before.
However, it would be foolish to assume that the West, particularly the United States, will sit back while China orchestrates its drive to global supremacy. In this regard, it is important to be mindful of the fact that while China may have created an imprint on the continent, the USA still has the edge in terms of tested political models, better technology in certain areas, and various renowned global brands. The call of the hour for the USA and other Western nations is to reassess their attitudes and strategy in Africa so that they may gain some foothold in a continent where China has already made a deep imprint.
In this regard, it is important to be mindful of the fact that while China may have created an imprint on the continent, the USA still has the edge in terms of tested political models, better technology in certain areas, and various renowned global brands.
Today, Africa continues to gain prominence in the international arena on economic and strategic fronts. It is time for the West to turn a new page in its relationship with the continent and try to put behind a history spotted with exploitative imperialism and most recently, characterized by supercilious parenting. The fact of the matter is that the Africa of today is brimming with ambition, and it is high time that the Western nations come to terms with this reality. The white man’s burden that once shackled the Africans is now shackling the ability of the Western nations to truly understand the future and the potential of the Africans. It is time that they abandon this mindset and start treating Africans as equal partners if they are to compete with China and other emerging powers in the times to come.
is a graduate of School of Economics of Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He has specialized in the field of development and political economics with additional non-credit courses of Environmental Economics and Monetary Policy. Currently, he works at the CSCR.