Is China Doomed to Fail in Africa?

This is from Wilson VornDick, a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, writing in the National Interest: 

It is unclear whether China could handle the financial repercussions of a larger, more systemic default or debt-forgiveness program across the African continent. Seeking relief, debtors to China would likely overwhelm existing mechanisms, like international arbitration, or China-backed forums such as the Export-Import Bank of China , China Development Bank , and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank . More importantly, debt restructuring, recoupment, and, in the more extreme case, seizure may not be viable, reasonable, or sustainable for Chinese interests or presence continent-wide. Just such a dire economic scenario might push China to use its nascent military force to protect or even seize its interests. Looking back at the previous period of Great Power Competition more than a century ago, leveraging military might to force repayment was commonplace. The U.S. military made multiple incursions into Caribbean and South American nations as did the Western powers in Africa and Asia.

It is reasonable to assume that China would have little or no experience in any dire economic contagion across Africa. The one primary example, the take-over of Hambantota Port, was an isolated incident during calmer times, before the financial uncertainty stoked by a slowing global economy or the current U.S.-China trade war. Moreover, the port takeover has now become a watershed moment in Chinese behavior that has attracted significant international scrutiny and ire.

More broadly, VornDick articulates the potential merits (from a U.S. standpoint) of a “Let China Fail in Africa” strategy as part of Washington’s Great Power global competition with Beijing. The whole argument is worth a read.

A glaring omission in VornDick’s analysis, however, is the interests and roles of Africans in this whole game (note that this is a gap in the “China-in-Africa” genre more generally).

chinafricaA key weakness that I see in the “Let China Fail in Africa” strategy is that it vastly underestimates the extent to which Africans will be willing to work hand in hand with China to make the Sino-African relationship work.

China’s forays in Africa is creating complex tapestries of personal and institutional relationships that will become ever harder to undo. For example, in both electoral democracies and autocracies in the region, citizens have come to expect political elites to provide public goods — many of them financed and built by China. Demands for more of the same will likely only get stronger. The desire to secure funding for more public goods will likely push African elites even closer to Beijing. Furthermore, at a time when the U.S. is working hard to signal that Africans are not welcome on its shores, tens of thousands of African students are earning degrees in Chinese universities. Many of these students will probably go back to their respective countries and maintain ties with Chinese business and academic contacts. These kinds of investments in soft power will matter in the long run.

Global diplomacy is not just about crass material interests. It is also about values and shared commitments to respectful mutual cooperation. If African elites become convinced that they are better off bandwagoning with China, they will do so.

And most importantly, having made that choice, they will make specific investments (whether deliberately or not) to make their nations ever more closely allied with China. They will adopt specific technologies. Establish specific market relationships. Acquire specific weapons systems. And yes, more of their students will learn Chinese and go on to earn degrees in China. The closer the military, economic and “soft” ties, the more African elites will be willing to make costly investments in order to ensure that their respective states’ relationships with China work.

A good lesson in this regard is francafrique. The relationship between France and its former colonies in Africa is not winning any awards soon. But for almost six decades African elites have remained committed to the relationship and worked to give the French military free rein in the region and French firms access to vast natural resources. The French state, in turn, has worked to prop up the same elites despite massive economic and political failings.

The point is: China’s failure in Africa (if it comes to pass) is not what will determine the future of Sino-African relations. What happens before any such failure will likely matter more.

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