Kiron Skinner, US State Department Director of Policy Planning, elicited opprobrium for characterising China’s “threat” as the first time the US “will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian”.
She also said the jockeying with China is “a fight with a really different civilisation and a different ideology”.
Such talk during the US-China trade war, the biggest and second biggest global economies respectively, could only stoke the conflict.
Adding race to America’s paranoia over China is reminiscent of the “Yellow peril” anxiety that perceived people of the East as existential threats to the West. South Africans who endured the apartheid system will remember how “swart gevaar” (black danger), calcified racial chauvinism.
At the 2019 Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilisations, China’s President Xi Jinping asserted: “The thought that one’s own race and civilisation are superior, and the inclination to remould or replace other civilisations are just stupid. To act them out will only bring catastrophic consequences.”
The expressions of both Skinner and Xi Jinping evoke Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations theory. His argument was that in the post-Cold War era, conflict would be characterised by a clash of civilisations in the form of a plethora of identities cleavages, ranging from cultural to religious.
Islamic fundamentalism, the resurgence of ultra-nationalism and Western hostility towards China’s rise seem to justify Huntington’s forecast. The main point of contention between the US and China resides in how they view their place in the world.
Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state and a panjandrum of realpolitik wrote in his book On China that while US exceptionalism was missionary, the urge to view its values as universally applicable and hence the inclination to convert the rest of the world to the US worldview, China’s exceptionalism is cultural and seeks only that other countries understand and tolerate China’s worldview.
Thus, China does not impose its values on others. The ongoing trade war is redolent of Cold War politics. Of particular interest to Africa should be how the continent should react.
During the Cold War, Africa was only useful as a tool for winning ideological battles and for fighting proxy wars on behalf of either camp in the Cold War. Rebels, dictatorships and looters such as Jonas Savimbi in Angola and Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (the Democratic Republic of Congo) received Western support because they were deemed a buffer against the spread of communism. The instability and ruin they wrought in their countries was subservient to expediency.
Now, Africa seems to have an instinctual leaning towards China’s worldview because, with its history of being colonised, Africa is naturally hostile to foreign imposition.
China does not impose its worldview on Africa. Its seeming respect for other countries’ internal affairs is a powerful soft power tool that draws former colonies to China. But Africa’s posture in the international system should not be an impetuous decision elected to distance the continent from the West and former colonial powers.
From the early 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union betokened victory for market economics and neo-liberal democracy. Africa responded favourably. To date, the continent has embraced Western political values and economics, however improperly. In a continent where people have tasted the right of electing their governments, it would be a severe drawback to be seen to adopt a system that curtails people’s choice on who should govern.
Consequently, Africa should assume an autonomous position from both China and the US. It is thus heartening to note that South Africa has refused to be drawn into the Huawei saga, With the Trade and Industry Department stating the country does “not discriminate against any international companies; but treats foreign companies like local companies”.
African agency entails that it seeks to improve its circumstances by being the principal decision maker of where the continent should head. Both China and the US have redeeming features that could improve Africa’s lot. China has shown that with foresight, right ideas and the political will to implement them, third world countries could surmount difficulties. But the US view of democracy and respect for human rights seems to have taken root on the continent. Ultimately, Africa will have to chart its way but it should never again suffer the indignity of being an exploitable footnote in the tussle among big powers.
* Monyae is co-director of the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.