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As US rivalry with China intensifies, Africa must tread a neutral path and be aware of proxy wars

As US rivalry with China intensifies, Africa must tread a neutral path and be aware of proxy wars
(Front row, from left) China’s Politburo Standing Committee member Cai Qi, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, China’s President Xi Jinping, United Arab Emirates’ President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi ahead of the opening ceremony of the 10th Ministerial Meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, on 30 May 2024. (Photo: Jade Gao / Pool / Getty Images)

What lessons can Africa draw from China’s neighbours in Southeast Asia to get the best out of the volatile and precarious political environment created by the contesting major powers?

The global geopolitical environment is rapidly changing as big power competition between the United States and China intensifies. China’s rapid rise and influence, particularly in the Global South, has firmly integrated it into the political, economic, and social fabric of many countries in the South.

But despite China’s inroads and growing influence among many developing countries in regions previously dominated by US and Western influence, the US remains integral in these countries’ development interests – and African countries are increasingly under pressure to balance Chinese and US interests.

China’s economic and military strength has massively altered Southeast Asia geopolitically. Its economic prosperity has translated into military strength and capabilities to exert both hard and soft power beyond its territory.

As it asserts itself to safeguard its economic and security interests, it has provoked security fears among the weaker neighbouring countries with its sweeping claims over the South China Sea. Its territorial claims over the South China Sea are contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia.

It also has maritime and territorial disputes with regional powers like Japan and India, which have limited capabilities to contain its dominance in the region.

Rival powers such as Japan, India and South Korea in wider Asia have expressed concerns over China’s power hunt and are actively hedging towards the United States through economic and military partnerships meant to contain China and maintain the balance of power in the region. Southeast Asia has, therefore, become an important frontline of Sino-US competition. The competition manifests in diplomatic, economic and military strategies.

The US has established strong military ties with Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand and seeks to “enhance allies and partner’s maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea”. It has also established the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a grouping of the US, Japan, Australia and India known as the “Quad”. These are seen as power projections and competition for military dominance in the region.

The US is also active in initiatives such as the East Asian Summit, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regional forum and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework to return the US to the Indo-Pacific diplomatic and economic agenda after it left the Trans-Pacific Partnership that existed earlier.

China is actively propping up its own vision for security and economic development and Chinese leaders have laboured to allay the “China threat” theory by emphasising “peaceful rise,” “common development” and “community of shared destiny” as its guiding principles.

Its three pillar initiatives – the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilisation Initiative – represent its global governance and leadership vision that is continuously challenging the US-led liberal order.

Amid mounting tensions and big power polarisation in the region, China stepped up the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multibillion-dollar connectivity project that promotes trade, investment and infrastructural development that Southeast Asian countries found beneficial. Most of them have gravitated much closer to Beijing and prefer to “bandwagon for profit” with China. The US remains an important ally offering security guarantees.

For example, Indonesia chose China (over Japan) for the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway, citing Chinese financing which came with fewer strings attached. On the other hand, despite Vietnam’s concerns over China’s domination in its economy, the opportunity to link Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong with China’s Yunnan province is just irresistible.

Laos and Cambodia have developed comparatively closer relations with China due to the significant amount of Chinese investment in the country. Meanwhile, Thailand is still practising a hedging strategy to extract maximum benefit from relations with both China and the United States.

BRI connectivity projects and investments have been key to the region’s economic growth and interdependence between China and ASEAN countries. The ASEAN cooperation forum has provided a platform for dialogue that has facilitated diplomacy and consensus building on key areas of mutual interests.

It is evident that Southeast Asian countries acknowledge the complementary roles that the competing powers play in their economies and national interests and are keen on leveraging these opportunities for growth and development.

Lessons for Africa

African countries can draw important lessons from Southeast Asia and position themselves strategically in the face of intensifying power competition between China and the US.

Just as there are contentious issues in Southeast Asia, so there are in Africa. Concerns in Africa range from transparency, human and labour rights and “democratic” ideals to debt concerns. The contention over these issues has a polarising effect in what has come to be referred to as the “Washington consensus vs the Beijing consensus”.

However, what we need is an African consensus that reflects on these issues objectively with Africa’s development needs and priorities in mind.

Luckily, there appears to be an emerging consensus that Africa does not wish to be caught up in big power competition between China and the US to avoid proxy wars being fought on the continent. African leaders recall with concern the Cold War, when the US and Soviet Union fought proxy wars in Africa, making them wary of great power rivalry.

The current wave of “agency” presented by an alternative development model should be sustained, not to isolate the West, but to embrace opportunities that meet Africa’s development needs as a matter of priority.

A greater voice and role in global governance and global institutions is an objective worth pursuing.

However, this will not be achieved if African interests are not harmonised, coordinated and consolidated to achieve greater bargaining power in the face of intensifying power rivalry between China and the US. DM

Dr David Monyae and Dr Cliff Mboya are director and Postdoc fellow respectively at the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.


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