With all the attention dedicated to the economic crisis, it is easy to forget in Europe or the US that there is a whole different dynamic going on in sub-Saharan Africa. Many African countries are increasingly the battleground of a struggle between two global giants: Western forces from Europe and North-America on the one hand, and the Chinese State on the other. The difference? One consists of loosely defined conglomerates with diverse cultural, political and economic interests, whereas the other is a centralized and well-oiled state machine that is unburdened by morality or ambiguous agendas. It will be a surprise to no one that the latter is winning. Whether that is good news for Africa remains unclear.
When looking at countries in the Sahel or central Africa, ghosts from the Cold War era seem to linger everywhere. Two large powers battling it out over the backs of local populations, manipulating governments, and viewing Africa as a tool for global advancement, rather than as an independent entity. Yet, one cannot help the feeling that something is completely different as well.
The West is still doing what it always does, putting itself in the impossible position of wanting to be a force for universal “good”- as flexibly defined in offices in Paris, Washington or London, but usually including golden oldies like “democracy” and “human rights”- while at the same time being unwilling to escape from the clutches of self-interest and internal lobbies. Add to that the fact that “the West” is an eclectic collection of mostly uncoordinated state actors, multinationals, cultural movements and NGOs, plus some supposedly supranational organizations thrown into the mix, and one automatically feels sorry for local communities that need to deal with such chaos.
In contrast to the Cold War, however, the Soviet Union has been replaced by a decidedly original type of player: the People’s Republic of China. Unlike its extinct communist relative, China has no interest or time for exporting ideology or ethical values. China wants resources, and China wants influence. And lo and behold, China gets resources. And China gets influence. Unlike the eclectically burdened Western forces, Beijing’s practical approach is free from any type of limits on its willingness or ability to attain is objectives. Needless to say, this is an enormous competitive advantage over its direct competitors.
In a way, China plays the Westphalian game the way it should be played: it follows the strict rules of having a singular representative of its own territory being responsible for planning and communication with the outside world. As an African political leader, you know who you are dealing with, and you know the cost-benefit analysis of doing business with the Asian superpower.
Contrast this to dealing with the Western conglomerate: one has to manage the complex political structures between European and American nations, while at the same time balancing their words and needs with those of NGOs, business and other external actors with distinct and often conflicting agendas. No wonder that African capitals are increasingly filled by Chinese contractors! If you want to get things done, call Beijing. If you want a diplomatic nightmare of economic interests covered by a sauce of neocolonial arrogance, call Washington (as long as afterwards you call New York, London, Paris and Berlin, plus the headquarters of a few dozen international organizations as well, just to make sure that everyone is alright with your initial call to Washington).
The West has evolved into a giant network, a creature, no longer capable of dealing with the natural (Westphalian) laws surrounding it. It is like a whale on dry land, creating a headache for any local leader that has to deal with such a monster washing ashore. Sometimes it is sincere, often it isn’t, but it is consistently an unwieldy burden on local populations.
The Chinese dragon, on the other hand, flies wherever it deems necessary, offers some gold, threatens with fire, and soon moves on to other areas that catch its eyes. It feels at home in the Westphalian environment, in which it can bully and bribe while still behaving according to the systemic rules that supposedly regulate global affairs.
What does this mean for Africa? It is too early to say, and it will mostly depend on the ability of African leaders to manage the rivalry between these two global giants. Instinctively, however, it is hard to sympathize with Western hypocrisy. At least China does not pretend.
It is said that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. The Cold War elephants no longer exist. It is now the whale and the dragon that compete. And at the risk of abusing that metaphor, one can’t help wondering which the African grass prefers: an unwieldy whale, rolling and struggling to find a comfortable spot? Or a dragon that may burn some meadows with its flames, yet is agile and practically oriented, without overextending its stay?