To nobody’s surprise, China’s President Xi Jinping is expected to be re-anointed to an unprecedented third term as head of the party and military when the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party open in Beijing, starting 16 October. He is held as having dominated his country with strength and symbolism from the day he triumphantly become General-Secretary and President in 2012. In heading for a third term, Xi has orchestrated what he hopes would be the continuation of his Communism philosophy. However, “the twice a decade meeting comes as Xi faces significant political challenges, including deteriorating relations with the US and the western world, as well as an ailing economy amid a strict zero-Covid policy that has also fueled domestic discontent” reported the British tabloid The Guardian.
As a result, Xi’s rule has provoked multiple geostrategic uncertainties among African nations and rifts in various levels of global governance. Faced with the growing unpredictability of these developments, analysts are seized with the matter as they try to predict global geopolitical trends and prospects in the coming months, let alone years under Xi. It is for this reason that just about every analysis over the last couple of days has been cautious with projections around the impact on Africa – the would have, could have, and should have and the imminent now have of Xi’s grip on the country for another five years.
Despite the stubborn character of China, the central question is: what is the Communist party’s focus around Africa when examined through geostrategic lenses? For a long time, African analysts and strategists have lamented the continent’s growing economic dependence on China and the Global West nations. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war have brought into sharp focus the vulnerability of the seemingly powerful countries like China in the wider context of groupings such as the BRICS, G7, the G20, and NATO. With China and other rich nations in other parts of the world focused on dealing with their own problems and bringing to an end to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it is important for African nations to understand or at least predict how China moving forward will pursue a geopolitical solidarity that reflects a win-win trajectory for African nations.
The contemporary area of cooperation that dominates the discourse about China-Africa relations is that of China’s commercial interests in African nations align with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) objective of boosting infrastructure links in the continent, the need to protect its economic interests will increase accordingly. This has implications for its engagement with Africa’s regional powers such as Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa going forward.
Modest attention, however, seems to be devoted to understanding how the Communist party’s congress impacts on the China-Africa relationships in African foreign policy circles especially given that China’s leader is on the offensive, pushing an alternative to the Western-led security order that makes history from Beijing to Moscow that may include Pyongyang in the schisms of things all the way to New Delhi, Havana and finally to the rest of the world. One would presume due to the tense nature of the U.S-China standoff that has been on-going for decades, that commentary from Washington would be significantly less amicable than usual with reference to Africa’s relations with Beijing. Hence for the past several years, China’s role in Africa has been the focus of severe criticism in the U.S administration and the American media landscape.
The strategic importance of Africa, politically and economically, should not be underestimated. The 55 nations of Africa comprise the second-largest continent in the world. At 1.2 billion people, it is four times the population of the United States. The value of mineral and oil resources is estimated at several trillion dollars. The Horn of Africa provides easy access via the Red Sea to the Middle East; the Ethiopian ports of Assab and Massawa allow China access to the Gulf of Aden and the ports of South Yemen. In addition, the Red Sea passage to the Suez Canal in Egypt is of vital importance for transporting Chinese goods.
North Africa gives China proximity to U.S. bases around the Mediterranean as well as to critical sea lanes. The southeast African states such as Mozambique and Tanzania afford the Chinese access to the Indian Ocean. Off the coast of southern Africa are the historic belt of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and the Channel of Mozambique. Thus, China’s early support of the struggle of independence in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe was strategic, giving Beijing an ideal staging ground for the entire Southern Africa region.
China’s interest in Africa is not only geopolitical; the value of southern and central Africa’s minerals which are vital to industry, energy programs and modern weaponry products is of nearly equal importance. The economic stakes of the other African regions are also of significant importance: there is a major interest in the once economically depressed Horn of Africa as oil and gas reserves are being discovered, which is of primarily strategic importance, but the former French and Portuguese colonies in the northwest support several small export industries as well as a lucrative fishing trade.
Xi’s decision to stay in in contact with African nations, to meet so publicly with leaders of countries such as Zimbabwe and, subsequently, to receive a host of foreign leaders who are at odds with American foreign policy – including then Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ahead of the 2018 Beijing Summit – antagonized the U.S administration but also served as a powerful example of how China is always positioning itself in relation to the rest of the world.
Of concern to China however, is that Africa is considered a playing field without a referee. For the most part the independent nations of modern Africa have not declared themselves to be within particular helm of either East or West “spheres of influence” they seem to to tilt from one direction to the another depending with the issue concerned. Something that Xi has to live with on the back of his mind has he prepare to have spotlight shone on him as he swagger and speak with the usual passion at the upcoming congress and beyond.
That said, the congress will be closely watched in Africa for indications of the party’s intentions on several policy challenges including the economic damage caused by China’s tough zero- COVID-19 policies and a property sector crisis, demographic deep, increasingly troubled ties with the U.S and tensions over Taiwan. One thing for certain, African nations will not want a replica of the Russia-Ukraine war and its disruptive nature.