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Geopolitics

China, Africa And The Speed Of History

A visiting medical student watches a teacher to post anti-epidemic poster in Changchun University.
A visiting medical student watches a teacher to post anti-epidemic poster in Changchun University.
Carl-Johan Karlsson

From the downfall of the European Union to the end of capitalism, grand political theories of a post-pandemic world loom large. These are times where talk of watersheds and historic shifts suddenly can't be brushed away as mere sensationalism. Yet rather than trying to identify what will change, it may be more useful to gauge the rate of acceleration of power dynamics that have already been underway for decades.


The global rise of China is perhaps the most crucial — if most complicated — such shift. And in no place has that been more evident and underestimated than on the African continent. Much remains to be seen how the China-Africa relationship will evolve, and potentially accelerate, as a result of COVID-19, but there's little doubt about Beijing's intentions or ambitions.


After the virus first spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan, and was apparently mostly contained, Beijing has looked to step up its role as global leader by sending healthcare equipment abroad. Chief among the recipients have been several countries in Africa, which has in the last decade been a key region in China's strategy for long-term economic growth.


With the U.S. and EU busy consolidating their own economic and humanitarian response, African governments are now calling for an additional $100 billion in assistance from China as well as debt relief, according to The Africa Report. Perhaps wary of setting too soft a precedent, China has so far asked at least one nation, Zambia, to provide collateral in the form of copper-mining assets.


What arises are the same questions, only more urgent, over what ramped-up Chinese dominance in Africa could mean for the 1.3 billion-strong continent, as well as for the rest of the world. Beijing has been an attractive business partner for African leaders, mostly as trade agreements have been free of the ideological and transparency conditionality typical of the West.


Still, detaching business from ideology is no guarantor of equality and fairness. Should China's broader policy in Africa become financial-aid-for-resources, it would be little less than a continuation of a long list of skewed arrangements with resource-rich but underdeveloped African countries. One prime example is the minerals-for-infrastructure deal with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by which China was given mining rights to $50-billion worth of cobalt in exchange for a $6-billion investment into the DRC's war-torn infrastructure. Indeed, for democracies around the world, while China tightens its grip on Africa's resources (including the many minerals used in our technological revolution) the list of anxieties should also include the strengthening of authoritarian undercurrents should China step in to fill the leadership void left by the U.S.


Still, China's ambitions in Africa and elsewhere will be questioned ever more closely in light of the pandemic. Beijing is progressively earning the opprobrium of the whole world for its silencing of whistleblowers at the beginning of the outbreak, and more recently for the ongoing hostilities towards Africans in the Chinese port city of Guangzhou. Yet, with many fearing Africa's worst period in the crisis still ahead, and relatively little aid expected from the West, it would leave the poverty-ridden continent even more open to exploitation by its largest trade partner from the east. One more reason this crisis will have its place in history, even if it's just in making it arrive even faster.


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