Africa's place in the global fight for technological dominance
China and the US are embroiled in tension reminiscent of the Cold War belligerence between the US and the Soviet Union.
A US strategic report on China notes that at the inception of formal US-China relations in 1979, the US hoped that recognising China “would spur fundamental economic and political opening in the PRC (People's Republic of China) and lead to its emergence as a constructive and responsible global stakeholder, with a more open society".
However, the report ruefully notes that this hope has been dashed. It alleges China has not exported its economic reforms to other dimensions of its society in terms of political liberties and other forms of expression that are typical of liberal societies.
Sino-America tension has become even more pronounced during the Trump administration in the US. Once again, Africa will be forced, in subtle ways, to pick sides - just like it was during the Cold War. One of the most fractious issues igniting the tension that Barr talked about is technological dominance. Controlling 5G networks in the 21st century is a huge issue for ambitious global players such as China and the US.
Huawei, a Chinese technological giant, has been a centre of attention and an object of suspicion in the US. Africa has recently been more inclined to cultivating closer economic and technological relations with China than the US, and this has not gone unnoticed by the US.
Naturally, the US has been overt in its discomfort with China’s seeming success with Africa.
The US has justified its misgivings about Huawei by arguing that the tech giant might be China’s agent for global espionage. Africa is a growing consumer of technology and needs it to tackle the challenges of virtual isolation against the rest of the world. Huawei has established itself across Africa and, predictably the US has been loathsome to this development. China has been very emphatic in its opposition to American animosity.
Like America, China also realises great potential in Africa, not only as a consumer of technology, but also as an arena for players with ambitions of global dominance.
Africa finds itself in an invidious position. Its history has mainly been shaped by its multifaceted relationship with the West. However, that history was also an incentive for Africa and China to establish close ties to end colonial domination.
Recently, Africa and China have become closer in their economic ties. While this is happening, Africa has remained close in its political and social outlook with the West.
The circumstances summon the need for agile diplomacy. Historically, non-African players have treated Africa with condescension, dictating how it should conduct its affairs and with whom.
In China’s Second Continent (2014), American journalist and academic Howard French narrates that in the 21st century Africa is still being treated like a “baby”, a continent that is incapable of offering political, intellectual and economic import to the international system. This attitude explains non-African intentions of evangelising to Africa.
Nelson Mandela offered an assertive response to non-African attitudes of patronising Africa. In 1990, Mandela was asked about his praise for divisive leaders such as Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi, and how his cosy relationship with them raised eyebrows for those who expected Mandela to be a paragon of human rights globally.
Mandela responded that the problem with political punditry, mainly of Western provenance, is that it is undergirded by the attitude that whoever the West considers its enemy should be Africa’s enemy, too.
He went on to say that the relationship of South Africa’s ANC towards other global players was shaped by the attitude of those actors towards the ANC. In essence, Mandela was arguing that the ANC had a close relationship with those who helped its crusade against apartheid.
The West was occasionally equivocal in denouncing apartheid and calling for democracy in South Africa, fearing that the ANC would establish a communist government.
The ANC never forgot this and in Mandela’s interview, again in the US, with Robert MacNeil, Mandela reminded MacNeil that shortly after its proscription the ANC and its leaders in exile had sought American help. Their supplications were rejected, forcing the ANC to seek the succour of African governments and the help of players such as the Soviet Union. Mandela’s assertions appear somewhat prescient considering current circumstances of binary politics.
Africa is the least developed continent in the world and thus should welcome relations that can help to change its impoverished condition.
China has been an attractive partner to Africa, mainly because of its reiteration that Africa is its equal partner. Second, China’s unconditional relations with Africa pose a stark contrast to conditions that the West typically demands.
It helps that China was never a coloniser in Africa. From the West, Africa has adopted economic and political ideologies that are more inclined to the market and multiparty politics. Thus, Africa has the responsibility of sifting through the components of its relations with other partners and adopting components that can help the continent.
The continent should not succumb to the pressure of choosing sides in the tension that now claims attention in global politics. The same applies to consumption of technology.
If Africa is loath to consume technology from non-African partners, the decision should be Africa’s to make, after vigilant deliberations. The US is not helping its case against China when its attitude arguably suggests its anxiety about sharing dominance with a non-Western, non-Caucasian power.
* David Monyae is the director for the Centre for Africa - China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.