Updated: Mar 27
Six months ago, China hosted 53 African heads of states in Beijing for the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit. President Xi Jinping underscored China’s commitment of $60 billion to finance development initiatives in Africa. Around the same period, the newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad announced the cancelation of $20 billion infrastructure funding from China. Reason? Malaysia should not commit to an arrangement it cannot afford.
The international system we have known for more than 70 years is shaking. With new players on the field, the world is fragmenting into multipolarity. The balance of power is tilting from the Western Hemisphere to the Far East. China is the new protagonist. The Belt and Road Initiative is answering calls to trade, infrastructure, and investment development. Beijing’s influence blossomed as the West’s shrank in the heat of populism of far-right movements.
Shifting power is not uncommon to the global system. The end of World War II saw the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945, marking the beginning of a new era. The then U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), penned a vision of a better world where nations will resolve their differences in a peaceful manner. This led to the creation of the United Nations on October 24th, 1945, howbeit FDR didn’t live to witness the new world he dreamt of. This vision staged the U.S. as the main architect and superpower of the current international system. Together with European allies, they enjoyed a great of influence, permeating political and economic spheres of nations across the globe.
This was never without opposition. The Soviet Union countered Western power with communism surging in the wave of “anti-imperialism”. From 1947, this season of the Cold War raged for more than four decades. In the same spirit of anti-imperialism, as they unshackled their countries from the chains of the Western colonialism in the 1960s, many African leaders found a kindred spirit in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union eventually collapsed in 1991 under the weight of its economic chaos, as wittily elaborated by Harvard Professor, Richard H. K. Vietor, How Nations Compete. The fall marked the end of an era. The Cold War was over, and Washington was at the helm of global governance. What did that mean for Africa? The change was inevitable. Socialist-modeled economies stagnated, the continent needed a remedy. The West had the antidote. Reforms, reforms, reforms. Development assistance was readily available as long as African countries abandoned centralized economic systems to adopt market economic policies. Democratization, was another condition, seeing many African countries introducing multiparty systems.
Fast-forward 2008, the U.S. coughed, and the world caught a cold. The housing market bubble burst, and it set the world into a domino effect of economic meltdown. Africa was not exempted from the crisis, as commodity prices and export volumes plummeted. This was just a sign of the times. The crisis shrunk the global economy, particularly the West, for almost a decade. Such became breeding ground for Brexit and other far-right movements across the hemisphere, snubbing their political establishments’ domestic and foreign policies.
In one of the negotiations that I was fortunate to participate at the United Nations, a colleague echoed “we have enough problems to deal with in our own countries, so why to take care of other countries’ problems?” This explains why voters in the U.S. and some European countries favor candidates with inward-looking policies. They have been convinced that globalism is eroding their social protection and culture.
While this is happening, China is playing softball in the international landscape with “no-strings-attached” cooperation. This resonated with Africa. Many African countries were not at ease with “interference of internal affairs” as a condition for aid from Western patrons. China came as a perfect partner.
When the media reported Sri Lanka ceding their Hambantota Port to China on a 99-year lease for $8 billion an unpaid debt, it sent alarm signals about China’s foreign aid policy. Dubbed “debt-trap”, analysts infer China’s “no-strings-attached” aid as drawing its partners into unsustainable debt obligations at the cost of their critical infrastructure.
That explains why Mahathir Mohamad declined Beijing’s offer. He was quoted saying, Malaysia did not want “a situation where there is a new form of colonialism.” Whether it’s China or West, strategic posture is key to Africa’s success in the international system. It is the quality of its institutions to unleash its human capital and natural resources as a competitor instead of a recipient. Africa needs a strategy. The vacuum in the international system offers an opportunity for Africa to reinvent herself into a global player shaping the future of our world. But it will only happen in an Africa built on strong institutions, not strongmen.