West in new scramble for Africa to counter Beijing’s increasing foothold

Jan 17, 2022
emmanuel macron president of france
French President Emmanuel Macron. (Image: US National Archives)

China’s economic model and willingness to engage with the continent’s leaders on a long-term basis to deliver critical infrastructure is attractive. 

Last May, French President Emmanuel Macron visited Rwanda to recognise France’s ‘’responsibility’’ in the 1994 genocide that saw more than a million people massacred over the course of a hundred days. Throughout his trip he repeatedly acknowledged that France had “a role, a history and a political responsibility” towards Rwanda.

Macron is the first French leader since 2010 to visit the central African country, which has long accused France of complicity in the mass killings of Rwandan Tutsis due to the failure of French UN peacekeepers to act during key moments throughout the 1994 genocide.

As this was occurring, Germany and Namibia concluded an agreement to recognise colonial-era killings of the Herero and Nama people between 1904 and 1908. Germany pledged $US1.3 billion in aid and development assistance to the Namibian government. The then German foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said:  “We will now describe these events officially as what they were from today’s perspective: genocide”.

The acknowledgment by France and Germany of their roles in these atrocities comes as Western powers are seeking to expand their influence across the continent and balance against China’s increasingly ambitious foreign policy objectives.

These acts of contrition by France and Germany need to be understood within a broader political context and what can only be described as a new scramble for Africa, as Western leaders are becoming increasingly aware of the central role the continent will play in shaping the 21st century. That reality has been fundamental to the thinking of Chinese policymakers for decades and has come to the forefront under President Xi Jinping.

China has significantly increased engagement across the continent as part of a strategy to safeguard its continued economic development and move up the global value chain in line with objectives outlined in the Made in China 2025 Strategy.

This strategy is a critical part of China’s attempt to replace its reliance on low-end manufacturing and become a world leader in the provision of information technology and telecommunications infrastructure.

These efforts becoming increasingly more pronounced as the global economy attempts to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. In a recent interview, Premier Li Keqiang said high-end manufacturing ‘’will soon be able to match the traditional economic engines in China’’.

Placing China’s foreign policy ambitions within the context of its ongoing attempt to move up the global value chain is critical in understanding its engagement with Africa and developing nations more generally.

Africa is critical in facilitating China’s ongoing development due to a number of factors including the continent’s abundance of rare earth minerals, the growing middle class emerging across Africa and its increasing reliance on information technology for basic services.

With the importance of Africa to China’s long-term foreign policy ambitions being highlighted by the realisation of numerous Belt and Road Initiative projects designed to build upon Beijing’s already significant foothold across the continent.

The long-term nature of China’s engagement with countries across the continent strongly contrasts with the recent efforts of Western powers to expand their influence and leverage the legacy of previous colonial relationships in an effort to curtail China’s growing influence.

The legitimate criticisms of Beijing’s foreign policy ambitions in Africa distract from the fact that China has established a significant diplomatic presence that will not be easily displaced. This is due to the attractiveness of the Chinese economic model and the willingness of Beijing to legitimately engage with African leaders on a long-term basis to deliver critical infrastructure.

The urgency that Western powers are seeking to establish a footprint in Africa highlights increasing anxiety in relation to China’s growing influence and growing awareness of the inevitable shift of the balance of power to the African continent that will occur throughout the 21st century.

Only pursuing genuine long-term partnerships with African leaders can countries such as France, Germany and the United States compete with China’s growing influence across the continent and ensure that the balance of power does not continue to shift towards Beijing.

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