Tuesday, September 22, 2020

COVID or No: Why Africa Will Continue to Pivot Towards Beijing

At this most particular juncture, as the world races to meet and match the force majeure that is severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 or more commonly COVID19, the subject matter of this piece; “Why Africa will continue to pivot towards Beijing”may appear misplaced and not particularly apropos. However, while COVID is first and foremost a global health crisis, it has, if anything, only served to heighten existing geo-political dynamics and tensions. And at a time when the political priority of all governments should be containing COVID and obstructing its derailment of the efforts of world governments to see to the needs, aspirations and rights of their peoples, the unattractive underbelly of international politics has emerged. With key global political figures, most notably the American President, Donald J. Trump, taking a singular event…. the outbreak of a virus in the human population… something that occurs in nature… and turning it into something “other” … a racist rant against China apportioning blame, intended to distract from his own political failings; his mishandling of the COVID19 pandemic on American soil and his bungling of race relations. African’s are acquainted with this kind of distaste, didn’t the ‘same’ people blame us for HIV?

His anti-China tirades have garnered international attention and widespread condemnation. And in the back-drop of this, members of his administration and elements in the Western press, have chosen to seize upon moments of discomfiture in Sino-African engagement, and emphasize them as being the norm, rather than challenges or isolated events. These attempts at disruption are nothing new and can perhaps be better understood in the broader context of Western attempts to contain Beijing’s advance and more specifically, America’s ’s ongoing trade offensive against China. A prime example of this being a recent “report” from The Heritage Foundation, an American think-tank, that alleges that China, used technology giant Huawei to bug the African Union headquarters building in Addis-Ababa. This recent paper, based upon nothing more than speculation, was dismissed by the African diplomats’ whose attention it was called to, who pointed out that such articles constituted habitual American posture on all things Chinese. Secondly, that a breach of that nature, both of trust and security would have been impossible to keep secret, nor would they have. Thirdly, had a violation of that nature occurred, it would have given the AU tremendous advantage in any future dealings with Beijing, that they would not have hesitated to exploit, Africans, are after all, not stupid.  Next, why was it that the American’s themselves had been unable to provide any concrete evidence to Huawei’s alleged eavesdropping even on their own soil? Africa, they were clear, would not be drawn into a dispute between China and America, directed at a corporation that had provided vital technology infrastructure and services on the continent, enhancing both lives and livelihoods. And finally, it was made emphatically clear, that while, Sino-African engagement, is not without its trials and tribulations, that the relationship is one that is ever-evolving, and would continue on unabated.

If diplomacy and international relations were simply the dry; “practice of conducting negotiations between representatives of states or groups…entailing influencing the decisions and conduct of foreign governments and officials through dialogue, negotiation, and other nonviolent means … usually referring to international relations carried out through the intercession of professional diplomats with regard to a full range of topical issues…”, then it wouldn’t consume so much of our collective time, effort and attention. And we would leave it to the the algorithms that run the programs and apps on our smartphones and computers. And the economic, geographic, ecological, national security concerns and so on and so forth of each nation would be taken into account, with computational adjustments for equity, and we would accept the outcomes, knowing that what emerged was right and fair. And diplomacy wouldn’t rank as high on the professional scale, nor would it lie in the purview of Presidents, Premiers and Prime Ministers.

But instead, diplomacy is all of the aforementioned and more; it entails the range and scope of human interaction, the width and breadth of language, culture, race and gender, the import of history and experience, the motivations that involve gain and advantage, power and privilege, the vast dimension that is emotion and the traits of character that are inherent to all us of… pride and prejudice…kindness as opposed to cruelty…concern contrasted with indifference…integrity versus artifice…humility as against hubris. It is this byzantine synthesis of factors that merge and makeup global interplay. Sino-African association, is a prime example of these forces in motion.    

The establishment of modern Sino-African relations began in the late 1950s, when China signed bilateral trade agreements with Algeria, Egypt, Guinea, Somalia, Morocco and Sudan. Relations at that time were reflective of China’s foreign policy approach and it began to cultivate ties and offer economic, technical and military assistance to African states and liberation movements. Early modern bilateral relations were mainly affected by the Cold War and socialist ideology. China embraced several principles, among them backing the independence of African nations while investing in infrastructure projects. In 1971, the support of African nations was crucial in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) joining the United Nations (UN). And since the turn of the century, China has increasingly prioritized Africa as a strategic partner at both the geo-political and economic levels, seeking to link African commodity and consumer markets to its rapidly growing economy. China’s commitment to nonintervention in African domestic affairs and its determination to build partnerships based on equality and mutual respect marked a welcome departure from Western conditionalities for African access to foreign aid and investment.

Present day Sino-African engagement traverses the width and breadth of economic, political and social potentialities and encompasses aid, trade, investment, technological cooperation, healthcare, the construction of vital infrastructure, education, agriculture, technology transfer, military cooperation, as well as mutual support and backing within the international political system. The rapidity with which China overtook the West as Africa’s main trading partner and ally has been the subject of intense study and debate. It was and continues to be indicative of a fundamental change in the pattern of international relations.

The era of the international marginalization of Africa, is over. And Africa’s governments have not forgotten China’s role in this acute paradigm shift. Beijing brought with it to Africa more than economic opportunities when it came courting. Its proffer of deference stood in stark contrast to Western disdain. China sought synergy with Africa, when Washington and its allies have sought to dominate and to dictate. It stood on common ground as a developing nation, stood by and up for Africa in international forums, and defended the continents right to self- determination, and always the Chinese Communist Party has hailed Africans as equals, as peoples with whom they’ve a shared past – oppression at the hands of colonial masters – and as a continent with whom they share a collective vision of the future, one in which both parties prosper. African heads of state are feted in equal measure to their Western counterparts when they visit Beijing. A state visit is the norm, not the exception. And these gestures, seemingly small and insignificant, carry with them a world of meaning.

Enter COVID19 stage left; first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, Hubei, China.

While there have been unhappy incidents around the treatment of black African nationals in certain cities, in China, in and around COVID19, these incidents were aired, discussed and actions taken and assurances made to African governments, regarding the protection of their citizens on Chinese soil. And while there have been unfortunate events on the African continent, resulting in the loss of Chinese lives, in and around COVID19, African governments, have similarly taken steps to ensure the protection of Chinese nationals. Both parties are cognizant of the fact that when and where strange civilizations, cultures, languages, races mix; there exist openings for misunderstandings, but that these can be mitigated and managed.

Thus, it came as no surprise, when on on the 18th of May 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech via video link to the World Health Assembly, made it clear how vital the support of African nations is to Beijing. And even in the midst of international turmoil an estimated $280 million of coronavirus related aid and support has been delivered to Africa, from China. A large part of this assistance emanating from from private individuals and the Chinese businesses community operating in Africa.  This community is both vested and invested in Africa. The ongoing pandemic has brought to light other positive aspects of Beijing’s engagement on the continent. The level of private engagement linked to COVID-19 relief in recent months shows that the relationship, continues to evolve and that the next big driver of Sino-African engagement, will not emanate from loans, but from investment.

As such, while the West continues to decry and advocate for a “buyer beware” stance on the part of Africa, with regard to China. In the harsh light of day, and in light of the clarion call in the West for the better treatment of its own citizens of color, its black denizens in particular. Western hypocrisy in its dealings with Africa, has been laid even more bare. And Africa, will continue to pivot towards Beijing, now and in the foreseeable future. 

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The Telegraph September 23

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 23, 2020.