Common African Strategy Imperative in New Era of Great Power Rivalry

Mar 12 , 2022
By Leulseged Tadese Abebe

The Cold War is back with "a vengeance." A common, implementable continental strategy ought to be drawn to ensure that African countries once again do not become pawns but active players that assert their own interests, writes Leulseged Tadese Abebe, career senior diplomat who has served in Geneva, New York and Tel Aviv. The opinions expressed here are the author's own views and not of any other institution.

The United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, four years ago, made a chilling remark that now seems to be proven accurate.

“The Cold War is back with a vengeance," he said.

Without denying the fierce competition and rivalry between the ruling and rising superpowers - the United States and China, respectively - there is still an ongoing debate whether we have to call it the Second Cold War or not. Some prefer to call it “systemic rivalry," others “strategic competition," or “strategic rivalry.”

Semantics aside, it is indisputable that each phrase describes China and the US are engaged in a comprehensive global power struggle in political, security, geopolitical, economic and technological spheres. Though war is not inevitable between the two rivals, history teaches us that it cannot be ruled out.

Whether the strategic rivalry would be stable or become a hot war largely depends on how they manage their protracted international competition with a mechanism to establish effective communication channels. Unfortunately, what is deeply worrisome is that the rivalry has no safeguarding institutional instruments to prevent and manage crises.

That is why a month ago, Guterres warned that we are living in a “more dangerous place now than during the Cold War” between the Americans and the Soviets.

No country or region can escape from the influence of the ongoing rivalry. Africa is not an exception. Indeed, like the Cold War (1945-91), it has become one of the battlegrounds for the Sino-American rivalry. As the competition intensifies, the central question for the whole continent becomes how African states should position themselves to preserve and promote their collective interest.

No doubt, each African country has its uniqueness, and it may adopt its way of navigating this rivalry. However, as this is a global competition between two global powers almost in every aspect, Africa should design and implement a common strategy that could guide the continent to speak in a unified voice and implement continentally, sub-regionally, and nationally, accommodating local contexts and dynamics. Calling for an African strategy is not about welcoming great power rivalry. One would wish to have multifaceted cooperation between China and America.

But that would be delusional. Hence, to deal with the world as it is, Africa needs a common strategy.

The African Union is well-placed to develop the continent's strategy like the EU that issued its China strategy in 2019 to introduce a shared and wholistic European approach. Of course, a strategy would not be a magic bullet to solve the difficult choices each African state has to make and the dilemmas it faces. But it would be a valuable framework for organising African thoughts, positions, and actions, making the difficult task of navigating the competition between the two heavyweights easier and more coordinated. Acting based on a common blueprint would enhance trust among Africans themselves, and increase the credibility of the continent, thus contributing to playing its rightful role in global affairs.

As great power rivalry is not new to the continent, the common strategy could allow Africans to come together and draw lessons from the grave consequences of the Cold War. After the Second World War, the Soviet-US rivalry primarily depended on their interest in expanding their sphere of influence. Africa was considered a pawn in their drive for global supremacy. During the Cold War, both superpowers acted only through the prism of their ideological battles, supporting brutal regimes in Africa. Africa should engage in self-reflection to firmly position itself in the current global competition to avoid repeating this ugly history. Designing a common strategy would offer an opportunity in this regard and enable Africa to act proactively based on its interests.

The strategy could also be considered another fitting time to assess the engagement of the US and China after the fall of the Berlin War. After winning the Cold War, Africa was considered almost irrelevant in the agenda of Washington, described by some as “the hopeless continent."

It was the war on terror that shone a new light on Africa. Hence, the US saw the continent as a partner to fight global terrorism, enhancing its security cooperation with many African states. It also has a military presence in Africa. In addition, the US has attempted to strengthen its economic ties with Africa, including launching the African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA). It took crucial and successful health sector initiatives and consolidated its humanitarian, bilateral and multilateral development assistance programmes.

In 2021, the total US-Africa trade volume was 64.2 billion dollars, according to the US Census Bureau. Though still a significant investor, the US FDI has been decreasing over the last decade. Criticised for over-securitising its African engagement and being “jealously obsessive" of China, the US appears to be determined to enhance its economic engagement with Africa, including through its Prosper Africa initiative.

On the other hand, the engagement of China with Africa is deeper and more impactful. Through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the Belt & Road Initiative, China has intensified its ties with Africa in trade, investment, and development aid. It is also the largest trading partner of Africa. In 2021, the trade volume with Africa was valued at a record high of 254 billion dollars, according to the Chinese Customs Agency. Chinese FDI to Africa is also one of the largest, particularly in financing infrastructures. These economic ties with the continent have contributed to economic growth, infrastructure development, and job creation. In addition to its military presence in Africa, China participates as UN peacekeepers in Africa. Critics, however, express their concerns that the relationship has ignored governance issues and brought a vast debt to Africa.

As the Sino-American competition continues to intensify, there is no question that Africa would continue to be another venue for their rivalry. While cooperation and coordination between China and America on common areas of concern such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change is possible, the primary and the dominant feature of the current global order is defined by their rivalry. Without underestimating the rivalry of other major powers in Africa, the strategic competition between the US and China is genuinely international and comprehensive. The two superpowers are in their own league on the world stage by every measure. Designing a common African strategy with particular attention to both countries is indispensable and timely to critically assess what Africa has benefited and lost in the recent struggles between two great powers and what should be done to maximise the gains of the continent.

While African governments should be at the centre of the African Union-led process, the common strategy should be prepared through an inclusive and participatory multi-stakeholder approach. One important difference between Cold War I and II is that technology and cyber security would be the key elements in the ongoing rivalry in addition to the economy. Consequently, the voice of the African private sector should be fully amplified, and its contributions to positioning Africa have to be recognised through its active participation. The rivalry has ideological dimensions; hence, involving the African citizens through genuine grass-root CSOs and academia is helpful to design a comprehensive strategy that all Africans could own.

There should be three basic pillars of the strategy, though this is not, by any means, an exhaustive list. Primarily, it should be anchored on safeguarding Africa's common interests, as expressed in Agenda 2063. Let us state the obvious. Both China and the US are engaging with Africa to promote their interests. The same is and has to be valid for Africa. The most crucial consideration for Africa on why and how it operates in this competition would be the promotion of a peaceful and prosperous continent. The success of any interactions with the two superpowers has to be measured by how much the continued agony of millions of Africans would be alleviated. To put it simply, the strategy has to work for ordinary Africans.

This would bring us to the second fundamental issue of the strategy - pragmatism. Africa could align with both superpowers based on its interest, manoeuvring effectively in this tightening global game. Practically speaking, Africa might support China on one issue, and on another matter, it could align with America. When and how Africa would align with one or both of them would be determined based on the common strategy.

The competition is multidimensional and dynamic. The strategy should thus be a comprehensive living document that adjusts according to global realities influenced by the constant struggle for dominance between Americans and the Chinese. It should include political, security, economic and technological aspects to guide Africa in all areas of competition.

Sometimes, Africans do not lack strategies but meaningful execution capabilities at continental and national levels due to the absence of political will and financial constraints. The African strategy on the existing global order should be implementable with effective and efficient instruments. This requires unwavering political commitment from all African states. A continent with more than 1.3 billion people cannot afford to remain silent during the era of the great power rivalry that influences every aspect of African lives.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 12,2022 [ VOL 22 , NO 1141]

career senior diplomat who has served in Geneva, New York and Tel Aviv.

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