No country can dominate Africa
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
On December 13, US National Security Advisor John Bolton announced a new Africa strategy that targeted China and Russia’s “predatory” practices in the continent. This has sparked a vigorous debate on China’s influence in Africa. What is the meaning of this new US strategy? Where are China-Africa relations headed? Yang Youming (Yang), former Chinese ambassador to Zambia, shared his views on these issues in an exclusive interview with Global Times (GT) reporter Yan Yunming.GT: On December 13, Bolton announced the Africa strategy to challenge the “predatory” practices of China and Russia which according to him are “deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage.” What is your take on this?
Yang: An image came to my mind when I saw this new Africa strategy: A spoilt little boy trying to keep other kids away to have the entire load of snacks himself. This strategy says that the US will strengthen cooperation with Africa. If it is true, I am all for it. Nevertheless, little sincerity can be seen.
First, I think “America First” is still Trump’s policy priority. Self-centered US occupies a commanding position, with maintaining hegemony as a prominent objective instead of considering Africa’s benefits.
Second, the US regards the continent as its sphere of influence to play the zero-sum game with China and Russia as its rivals. But one thing should be made clear that Africa is a full-fledged continent — larger than China, the US and India combined, with 54 countries and a population of over one billion. Thus, the US cannot dominate Africa alone; neither can Russia, China or any other country.
GT: Populism is gaining ground in Europe and North America and the US is withdrawing from several multilateral organizations. How do you think China-Africa relations will be affected within this global context?
Yang: The trends in Europe and North America have a worldwide impact. China and Africa are of course not immune from it. Populism will lead to change of standards around which countries conduct themselves. For example, Trump’s conduct revolves around money.
In the meantime, the US’ withdrawal from several agreements might force the reconstruction of international political and economic framework. This reconstruction will go through big-power games and generate new rules for international norms. During this process, absence of standard may lead to chaos in global order, and China and Africa will not be spared the impact.
GT: Western public opinion often views China’s Africa policy from a biased perspective, for example, alleging that China is a resource plunderer promoting “neocolonialism” in Africa. What do you think are the main reasons behind this?
Yang: Speculation by the West on China’s development never stops. In my view, the major reason lies in the unease and anxiety of the West — How can China develop so rapidly? Why did this country not follow our path? In particular, the West feels uncomfortable about China’s increasing influence in Africa. They have long considered this continent as their sphere of influence.
Indeed, Africans speak English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, and are used to the Western way of life. When Western countries suddenly realize that China is active and has been welcomed in Africa, they become worried. They see China-Africa cooperation as a zero-sum game, that is, they believe China’s gain equals their loss. But they ignore Africa’s interests and deny the benefits China brings to the continent.
However, African countries are aware that China is their best partner. Just because of this, local people continue to develop cooperation with China regardless accusations of the West.
GT: Some Western media outlets claim that China is controlling Africa through the “debt trap”. What is your view?
Yang: This allegation is groundless and irrational. First, China’s loan accounts for a small fraction of Africa’s foreign debt. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta once questioned in a CNN interview why the media is “focusing only on one lender” because the country’s lenders are not only China but also Japan, the United States, and many others. If China is controlling Africa through loans, are the other countries doing the same thing?
Second, China’s assistance is favorably received by African countries in that China lays stress on mutual benefits and win-win strategy accompanied by no strings attached. On the contrary, the West is seeking political profits; their assistance comes with onerous conditions. For instance, the West often interferes in Africa’s elections and referendums with financial assistance, while China’s help is associated directly with certain projects.
Finally and most importantly, China offers Africa visible and tangible benefits which the West cannot. China’s loans help create a benign circle. The projects using China’s loan such as construction of hydroelectric dams, highways and airports provide Africa with not only economic benefits, but also employment opportunities.
GT: Some people hold the view that China’s soft power and image in Africa have not improved in spite of the massive investment. What is your view on China’s soft power in Africa?
Yang: Soft power is an abstract notion; its measurement is thus rather subjective. China and African countries have developed everlasting friendship since the anti-colonial struggles. Most local people appreciate China because it is China that helped Africa gain national independence.
Over the past decades, China-Africa trade ties have improved rapidly since development has been the policy priority of both sides. Cooperation is built in various economic fields. As I mentioned, there are numerous China-Africa collaborative projects that enhance African infrastructure development, create jobs and raise people’s standard of living.
Moreover, in terms of culture and education, the two sides are working more closely than ever. From Zambia alone, over 3000 students are studying in China, not to mention the total number of African students in China. Encouraged by Confucius Institutes, increasing numbers of young Africans are highly motivated to learn Chinese. Chinese Kong Fu songs and dances are popular among the young as well. Besides, Chinese TV series are exported to Africa, and Chinese media professionals are helping produce a variety of shows such as the Zambian version of “If you are the one”, which is popular in China.
GT: China has signed an MoU on jointly promoting the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) with 37 African countries and the African Union. What are the prospects of BRI in Africa?
Yang: The two sides have broad prospects of cooperation under BRI. There is great potential and interdependence between the two sides. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation established a cooperation mechanism, and BRI further expanded it. As far as it goes, China-Africa cooperation focuses more on infrastructure as well as energy resources, which are the basis of economic development. I believe that the ties would stretch to fields with high technological and cultural content sooner or later. It is an irresistible trend.