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China, Africa and Washington’s weird worry

By Charles Onunaiju
30 January 2019   |   1:56 am
Last December, U.S National Security Adviser, Mr. John Bolton at a Washington D.C based Think Tank, Heritage foundation unveiled what he called the President Trump’s administration new Africa strategy..

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton answers questions from reporters during a news conference in the White House briefing room in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2018. Picture taken October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Last December, U.S National Security Adviser, Mr. John Bolton at a Washington D.C based Think Tank, Heritage foundation unveiled what he called the President Trump’s administration new Africa strategy, which according to him has been approved by the President and would go into immediate execution. Mr. Bolton told his listeners that “this strategy is the result of an intensive inter-agency process and reflects the core tenets of President Trump’s foreign policy doctrine…and remains true to his central campaign promise to put the interests of the American people first, both at home and abroad”.

But awkwardly, in discussing the America’s Africa strategy, themed “Prosper Africa,” Mr. Bolton was more concerned about China in Africa which he mentioned 17 times in a six page document, claiming that “China uses bribes, opaque agreements and the strategic use of debts to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing, wishes and demands.” Mr. Bolton who once railed at the United Nations for allegedly been filled with slot and incompetence and suggested that it would not matter at all, if 10 of the 38 floors of the UN building were blown away, was at his traditional best in spewing hard rhetoric in describing China’s engagement with Africa as “predatory action”

In formulating its hostile rhetoric against China-Africa Cooperation, Mr. Bolton and the administration he serves, did not seem to have consulted any African government or any of its representative institutions or even Africa’s public opinion on the issue of their relations with China for on the factual inputs, with a consequence that the U.S Africa’s strategy is a barely concealed Washington grand strategy to contain China, with Africa featuring only as a mere battle ground. To drive home the un-substantiated fallacy about China-Africa Cooperation, Mr. Bolton claimed that “the nation of Zambia is currently in debt to China to the tune of 6-10 billion U.S dollars,” and that “China is now poised to take over Zambia’s national power and utility company in order to collect on Zambia’s financial obligations.”

The Zambia’s Presidency quickly retorted that this assertion is a lie from the pit of hell. It clarified that the country’s total debt stock was about 9.3 billion U.S dollars owned to a variety of international creditors with China’s share of only about 3 billion U.S dollars and dismissed any suggestion that China plans to take over its utility company or any other of her national facilities. This is the kind of embarrassment; Washington gets for manufacturing lies and slander to inveigh at one of Africa’s most productive international partnership and engagements.

Africa’s leadership at several collective fore and individually has firmly signaled that the continent’s space is too wide to contain all kinds of international partners and therefore, extrapolating the discredited zero-sum game in what Mr. Bolton called “great power competition” to Africa is outdated and would not found a serious recipient in a contemporary Africa, which is open to business with the rest of the world. China has never considered Africa to be her exclusive preserve despite a long trajectory, stretching from mutual solidarity generated from struggles against colonial domination and for national independence to now avid cooperation to build their respective national economies and improve the quality of lives of their respective peoples.

In fact, Beijing has repeatedly called for more international attention to Africa and urged for vigorous global partnerships to help Africa overcome some of its existential challenges, while herself leading the way despite such distractions as Washington’s weird worries. According to Mr. Bolton, “the predatory practices pursued by China…stunt economic growth in Africa, threaten the financial independence of African nations, inhibit opportunities for U.S investment, interfere with U.S military operations and pose significant threat to U.S national security interests”. 

It is very likely that any time Mr. Bolton or any of the U.S administration official travels to anywhere in Africa he or she would be landing at China’s assisted airport terminals, drive on Beijing assisted Highways and should he chose to travel by contemporary modernized railway, would be enjoying the cruise on China’s built standard gauge railway lines that is giving practical effect and filling the gap of connectivity and integration, which was the historical deficit of pan-African quest for functional  regional unity. If Mr. Bolton begrudges the significant strategic efforts in China-Africa cooperation and simply calls it, “predatory practices that ‘stunt’ growth in Africa”, then the U.S new strategy on Africa has not certainly benefited from the inputs of U.S resident diplomats in Africa, who are witness to the daily giant strides of China-Africa cooperation in the course of the changing face of the continent.

The Washington’s concerns that China in Africa would “inhibit opportunities for U.S investment, interfere with U.S military operations and pose significant threat to U.S national security interests” are plainly weird and grossly out of place, except if Washington means that her new strategy in Africa is to undermine Africa and her international partnership.

In her profound and engaging pioneering work on China-Africa, the U.S professor Deborah Brautigam wrote in “The dragon’s gift: the real story of China in Africa,” that “China is now a powerful force in Africa and the Chinese are not going away. Their embrace of the continent is strategic planned, long term and still unfolding…

Ultimately, it is up to Africa governments to shape this encounter in ways that will benefit their people. Many will not grasp this opportunity but some will. The West can help by gaining a more realistic picture of China’s engagement, avoiding sensationalism and paranoia, admitting our shortcomings, and perhaps exploring the notion that China’s model of consistent non-intervention may be preferable to one that regularly intervenes in other countries domestic affairs or uses of military force to foster political change.”

Given that Prof. Brautigam first wrote these instructive lines in 2009, the current U.S Africa strategy which Mr. Bolton discussed last month with so much gusto appeared totally outdated and even out of context to the current conditions and stage of China-Africa cooperation.Notwithstanding, the current Washington’s weird worries and concerns about China-Africa relation, the United States certainly have legitimate interest in Africa and should cultivate it just like others to contribute to her national aggregates.

As traditional friend to Africa with considerable soft power influences on the continent, United States can explore the opportunities that Africa presents to the world with its growing market, resource endowments and the resilience of her civil communities.

But to maximally benefit from the opportunities of contemporary Africa in contributing to “making America great again,” slandering Africa’s foremost contemporary partnership with China or seeking the outdated cold-war strategy to contain Beijing is a pathetic non-starter. In China-Africa cooperation and partnership, Washington should eschew undue intervention, show modesty and respect, by at least allowing those directly involved to lead commentaries on the issues of the relationship.

At the recent summit of China and Africa in Beijing last September, the two sides agreed to themselves to build a community of shared future and common destiny, declaring to jointly leverage the Belt and Road international cooperation to fill the gaps of their development needs and urged the rest of world, including the United States to key in, to the emerging paradigm of international cooperation and consensus building.
• Onunaiju is director, Centre for China Studies (CCS) Uatko, Abuja. 

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