Tuesday, October 22, 2019

US-China Cooperation in Africa? Perhaps not in French Africa

This guest post by CARI Fellow Dr. Afa’anwi Ma’abo CHE, from Kampala International University, is the first of our series "Notes from the Field." Over the coming weeks and months, we will publish a selection of posts from our current group of research fellows, with a focus on reflections, research notes and preliminary findings. For his CARI-funded research project, Dr. CHE traveled to Cameroon, which prompted the below thoughts.

Photo credit: Afa'anwi Ma'abo CHE
Following China’s resolve to ‘go global’ at the end of the 20th century, Africa has witnessed a surge in Chinese trade, finance, and investments. China has risen and surpassed the US to become Africa’s leading economic partner. Cooperation, relative to competition, between the superpowers has a greater potential to induce optimal positive-sum gains for the superpowers and for Africa. But the scholarly and policy worlds are shrouded in pessimism about chances of the US cooperating with China in Africa. Three major reasons are often averred for the pessimism: i) the current US administration views Chinese engagements in Africa as imperialistic, debt-trap predatory, threatening to the autonomy of African states, inhibitive to US foreign investment opportunities, and inimical to US national security interests; ii) the US government's aversion to China’s ‘non-interference’ policy, which underpins its engagements in Africa; and iii) several African state leaders' seeming preference for unconditional bilateral partnerships (mainly with China), which are oblivious to liberal democracy, human rights, and public accountability performance profiles of African states, as opposed to trilateral partnerships involving the US and intrusive conditionality constraints.

However, by focusing on the inimical perceptions and preferences of the US, China, and Africa tripod alone, the motivation and capacity of other major players, particularly France, to thwart sustained joint and solo US-China involvement in (French) Africa is overlooked. This blog post avails the opportunity to elaborate.

Roman Serman, a former French presidential adviser, has rhetorically, albeit unconvincingly, asserted that it would be ridiculous to think that France could invoke its long standing Françafrique defense agreements – which, in part, provide France privileged access to natural resources and markets in some French African countries such as Togo – to, for instance, order Togo to tell China, ‘quitter le pays’ (leave the country). But, in March 2019, during his visit to Djibouti, President Macron of France implicitly asked China to steer clear of French Africa.

And Paris has formidable influence it can utilise to serve its interests in Francophone Africa to the detriment of China, principally including: i) the French language, which remains either the sole official or one of the official languages in all Franc Zone countries and almost all former French colonies in Africa (excluding Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia); ii) the colonial CFA franc currency in the Franc Zone, and perhaps most importantly iii) the aforementioned French secret neo-colonial defense agreements with at least 8 French African countries, which essentially guarantee the concerned African countries, particularly their old ruling elite, France’s protection against internal and external foes in exchange for priority access to natural resources and markets (although some of those agreements have since been revised). Elaborate analysis of how France is using these soft and hard power tools to keep an extractive imperial grip on French African countries has been carried out elsewhere.

How will China respond to France’s anti-Chinese campaign in Francophone Africa? Well, this is a hypothetical question, but given China’s marginal presence in French Africa within the bigger picture of China in Africa, France’s disgruntlement with China’s ‘encroachment’ in Françafrique could lead Beijing to keep only a limited strategic presence in the French African countries that China consider critical to the ‘Belt and Road’ plan, notably Djibouti, Cameroon, and Senegal, while focusing on growing its already relatively greater investment presence in Anglophone Africa. Unfortunately for the people of Francophone Africa, any curtailment to China’s ambitions would only dent any prospects they may have of benefitting from China’s unmatched commitment to the continent.