Graphic: Timothy Alexander/African News Agency (ANA) – As its strategic security, economic and diplomatic interests assumed a distinctively global scope, China has had to cultivate cordial relations with far flung regions of the world.
By David Monyae
The rise of China as a genuine global power in the past few decades has drastically changed the complexion of global geopolitics.
China is now the second biggest economy in the world and is on track to become the largest economy in a few years’ time. The meteoric growth of its economy has given China’s role in global affairs a tremendous boost. Whether its climate change, international trade, poverty eradication, governance of digital technology or combating a pandemic, China’s voice in the resolution of global challenges has become increasingly difficult to ignore.
As its strategic security, economic and diplomatic interests assumed a distinctively global scope, China has had to cultivate cordial relations with far flung regions of the world. Hence, Beijing has invested in and expanded its diplomatic footprint with 276 diplomatic offices spread across the world. This is more than any other country has done. In its global march, the Asian giant has intensified its relations with such regions as Africa and South America in the past two decades.
China has become both regions’ largest bilateral trade partner with trade between China and Africa reaching a record US$254 billion in 2021 while trade with South America reached US$247 billion in the same year. In both cases the value of trade is way beyond the regions’ trade with the United States (US) – another economic superpower. Despite being in the US’s backyard, Latin America’s trade with China surpasses its trade with the US by a massive US$73 billion.
Parallel to its deepening economic co-operation with the two regions, China has also embarked on an intensive diplomatic drive. This is best manifested through initiatives such as the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) and the China-Community of Latin and Caribbean States Forum (China-CELAC Forum), which are China’s regional diplomacy mechanisms. In addition, China maintains vibrant bilateral relations with almost every state in the region with the exception of Swaziland in Africa, which still maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In contrast the US has reduced its diplomatic footprint in these regions over the years, a signal that they were not on the list of Washington’s foreign policies.
Moreover, China’s cultivation of mutually beneficial relations with Latin America and Africa is part of its promotion of South-South cooperation, which would be the anchor of a more just and equitable global order. This is underpinned by China’s flagship foreign policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI is a global infrastructure programme conceptualised and funded by China, which seeks to promote trade, finance, policy, and cultural co-operation and enhancing connectivity through infrastructure development in energy, transport, and communications sectors. About 21 states in Latin America and 49 African countries including the African Union Commission (AUC) have signed up for and benefited immensely from the BRI, which has driven investments up by hundreds of billions of dollars in both regions.
However, China’s activities in the two regions have set the West in general and the US in particular, visibly ill at ease. The narrow and one-dimensional view of the world has led the pundits and policy makers in the US to interpret China’s presence in Africa and South America and the broader world from a zero-sum lens.
For some reason, China’s growing co-operation with the two regions is seen as undermining America’s global influence and leadership. Such attitudes largely stem from Washington’s arrogant appropriation of Latin America and Africa as its spheres of influence or satellite regions. US diplomats and government officials have gone to the extent of erroneously characterising China’s presence in Africa as part of a colonising mission. Further. China’s association with the two regions and its emphasis on South-South co-operation have been viewed as an attempt to revise the post-1945 global order which has one-sidedly favoured the US and the broader West at the expense of the developing world. As a result, Washington has consistently labelled China as a strategic threat to its national interests in a series of National Security Strategy documents.
To counter China’s growing influence, the US and its allies declared an irrational trade war with China; put together illogical and dangerous military coalitions such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue meant to contain China in the Indo-Pacific region; quickly and clumsily proclaimed the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) to rival China’s BRI; and in Africa the US recently issued a remarkably underwhelming US Strategy Towards sub-Saharan Africa. The US-African strategy is largely Washington’s attempt to compete with China’s presence in the region and less about building genuine relations with the Continent.
The strategy document incomprehensibly claims that the “People’s Republic of China (PRC), by contrast, sees the region (Africa) as an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken US relations with African peoples and governments”. It also asserted that “the (US) Department of Defence will engage with African partners to expose and highlight the risks of negative PRC and Russian activities in Africa”.
The US and its allies are creating a non-existent ‘China problem’ in Africa and Latin America stemming from their misplaced perception that China is competing with the West. Instead, what the West should realise is that it is better for them and their economies if they co-operate rather than compete with China in driving economic development in developing regions. China has consistently emphasised through the BRI and most recently through such initiatives as the Global Security Initiatives (GSI) and the Global Development Initiative (GDI) the need to build a community with a shared future for mankind.
This is because the interests of the world’s countries such as peace and security, economic development and environmental protection are indivisible and inherently intertwined. They can be better addressed through co-operation and collaboration rather than competition. It does not make much sense to imitate China’s BRI through the so-called PGII as some form of competition. It makes much more sense for the West to join the BRI and collectively improve it where it’s lacking.
The development of poor countries especially in Africa is good for the world. As such, major powers especially in the West must desist from politicising global development by creating conflict with major powers like China where none exists.
David Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.