African Agency vis-a-vis China: Why Coordination is Critical

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In recent years, Africa has been courted by a growing list of countries, however, it is arguably China that has been more proactive and visible. As other international players such as the European Union, the United States, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and India have set up their own cooperation mechanisms, the debate over a coordinated approach towards Africa’s strategic partnerships has continued to gain traction, with the African Union (AU) embracing this policy debate as part its own reform processes.

So how can Africa assert its own agency so that it engages with the wider world on its own terms?

Why coordination is critical

My recent book on Africa-China Cooperation, Africa-China Co-operation: Towards an Africa, argues that the answer is to combine its market power through the African Continental Free Trade Area while leveraging its voting power in multilateral fora. The call for greater coordination has thus persistently featured in academic and policy debates.

This is one reason that the AU has set up an office in Beijing – to better coordinate relations with China. Amid the heightened geopolitical rivalry between the US and China that has played out in tech and trade wars displaying mutual distrust, Africa should avoid getting caught in the middle of great power competition and instead chart a development path that works towards meeting its own priorities by strategically engaging a broad range of partners.

Indeed, one reason we titled our book “Africa-China Co-operation” rather than “China-Africa Co-operation”, is to demonstrate the need to highlight and promote African agency and the need for greater coordination across the continent.

The way forwards

African governments and civil society groups will thus have to continue examining closely what China’s evolving domestic and external needs are, while strengthening their institutional capacities to boost regional value chains, intra-Africa trade, and cross-border infrastructure projects.

This will enhance African agency by enabling greater coordination between individual nation-states, regional economic communities and the African Union – giving the continent more power in an increasingly complex world order.

Drawing lessons from Africa’s coordinated response to COVID-19, a clear consensus is emerging that only greater coordination will enhance African agency, ensuring that important international players focus their attention on the continent’s own development priorities.

Dr. Philani Mthembu is Executive Director at the Institute for Global Dialogue, an independent foreign policy think tank based in Tshwane (Pretoria), South Africa. He is the co-editor of Africa-China Co-operation: Towards an Africa (Palgrave Macmillan).

This piece was first published in The Continent, the weekly online newspaper shared over WhatsApp as a PDF, which is why it is a little shorter and has fewer weblinks than most pieces in this series. For all of the great pieces published for free by the Continent every week, go here.

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