New Scramble for Africa

China, Geopolitics, and the Global South

Uwe Hoering, January 31, 2024

This January, the foreign ministers of China and the USA went on a tour of Africa in quick succession. US government circles described it as a coincidence, although it is clear that the respective Chinese foreign minister is making his first trip abroad every year for three decades to Africa, in line with the motto of ‘Dinner for One’.

Same procedure as last year

The visit by the Chinese Foreign Minister is the prelude to the next Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), which has been held every three years since October 2000. The itinerary of Wang Yi, who paid short visits to Egypt, Ivory Coast, Togo, the Arab League and Tunisia between January 13 and 18, indicates according to observers that Beijing wants to play a mediating role in the Middle East and exploit the declining influence of European countries such as France in Africa. Antony Blinken, who visited Angola, Cape Verde, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast five days after his counterpart, carried with him the announcement of infrastructure investments. In addition, the aim is to prevent a Chinese naval base, rumored to be planned in Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa, while the future of the US military base in Niger is uncertain after the military coup at the end of July 2023.

The hectiv diplomatic activity highlights the fact that the new ‘Scramble for Africa’ is picking up speed. Africa has gained significant economic benefits and political space thanks to China’s global ambitions through lending, development projects, infrastructure expansion and trade. In turn, the US and Europe have stepped up efforts with Global Gateway and PGII in the hope of reducing what they see as China’s growing influence. But just as Blinken trails behind Wang Yi, US investment and trade are running far behind.

Cooperation vs competition

The situation for Africa looks favorable on the whole at first glance: The continent is not only being showered with diplomatic attention, but also with proposals and promises. Governments can bargain, playing the opponents against each other, demanding better conditions. And if it is the case that China is seeking to exert political influence, they could ease the pressure by invoking alternatives.

So far, however, there has been a lot of uncontrolled sprawl. One example is the proliferation of plans for new transport links and ports. Common economic sense might therefore advise those involved to work together. Projects would complement each other, for example railroad lines that do not only serve the respective colonial exploitation as they did in colonial times, economic zones and infrastructure would be coordinated, duplication avoided and implementation processes streamlined. Planning effort, costs and debt could be reduced.

At the same time, Western companies could benefit from Chinese efficiency and experience and Chinese corporations could adopt Western standards. In many major projects, multinational consortia are already cooperating with Chinese, European and US companies, balancing out political influence on domestic issues and still allowing business to take place.

Transnational exploitation

An example of this could be the Lobito Corridor, which in a few years’ time will connect the resource-rich countries of DR Congo and Zambia in the heart of Africa with ports in Angola at the Atlantic Ocean, as the Trafigura map shows. The G7, the African Development Bank AfDB, the predominantly private-sector African Finance Corporation and the EU’s Global Gateway initiative are in charge of the project. Critical raw materials such as copper and cobalt would then be transported both to the West and on the legendary Tazara line to the East.

“It will be impossible to avoid working with China on the Lobito project since Mota-Engil, partly owned by China Communications, signed an agreement to run the Lobito Corridor as part of the Trafigura consortium.” 

Global Construction Review, November 3, 2023

The international consortium which is to build and operate the route includes the Trafigura Group, one of the world’s largest private commodity traders, and a Chinese logistics company. The Angolan handling port of Lobito on the Pacific is operated by the China International Trust Investment Corp CITIC, while ports on Africa’s east coast are being modernized by Chinese companies. In the DR Congo, with the world’s largest cobalt and substantial copper deposits, mining giant CMOC has just become the country’s largest cobalt producer, while in neighboring Zambia, the company CNMC is planning to expand production at its copper mine. As a result, Chinese mining companies could soon be increasingly supplying both China and the USA.

„We manage complex supply chains to move minerals, metals and energy from where they are produced to where they are needed.

Website von Trafigura

Warming up to the neoimperial race

However, such transnational alliances in the exploitation of Africa are still an isolated case. Competition and conflicting economic and geopolitical interests still dominate on both sides. The intensification of the geopolitical confrontation is already widely publicized. But capitalist competition is also increasing, especially for raw materials and thus winning the alleged industries of the future, on which in turn the respective strength in the geopolitical arms race would depend – warming up to the neoimperial race for Africa through military influence and economic dominance, as was once the case in the second half of the 19th century.

But who knows: perhaps the immense extraction, processing and transportation costs of raw materials and the growing self-confidence of the countries of the Global South to use their resources themselves will encourage the opponents to come together. And then sometime in January 20xx, the two foreign ministers will travel to Africa together for a ‘Dinner for Two’. The date for the Chinese official’s visit has already been set.

Update February 9, 2024: The reaction to the plans to expand the transportation link between the mining regions in Central Africa and the Angolan port city of Lobito on the Atlantic Ocean has been swift: After lengthy negotiations, China and Zambia have agreed to modernize the legendary Tazara line, built in the mid-1970s with Chinese support, which connects Zambia’s copper mining industry with the Tanzanian port city of Dar es Salaam. The financing, which is to be provided by the China Development Bank, is tricky as Zambia is actually in no position to take out fresh loans due to its indebtedness.

Translated with DeeplPro (free version)

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