With China reducing its spending in Africa, Europe sees a chance to boost its influence.
At a two-day gathering of European and African leaders in Brussels this week, the EU hopes to unveil a series of major projects that will benefit from €150 billion in funding it has already pledged for its southern neighbors.
A draft “summary of deliverables” document ahead of the summit with African Union leaders lists a series of ambitious projects to improve digital connectivity, build new transport links and accelerate the shift to lower-carbon energy sources. It is all part of the bloc’s Global Gateway strategy — seen as a geostrategic riposte to China’s own Belt and Road initiative.
“It’s a good moment for Global Gateway. It’s clearly a good idea but we need to make sure that it’s properly funded in order to say with credibility that it’s living up to its promise to counter the Belt and Road,” said Anna-Michelle Asimakopoulou, vice chair of the European Parliament’s international trade committee. “They have to feel the difference.”
An EU official said Europe could step in as China pulls back. “The mega roll-out of Chinese money isn’t there anymore if you compare to a couple of years ago. The Chinese have a real problem in Africa.”
China has been investing less in Africa, especially since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a departure from earlier fears from African and Western countries over Beijing’s debt-trap diplomacy.
At the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $40 billion worth of investments for Africa, a third less than previous commitments. The same goes for Chinese loans. These totaled $7.6 billion in 2019 (the latest available figures) according to the Chinese Loans to Africa Database, run by Johns Hopkins University and Boston University. That’s a sharp drop from the 2016 peak of $29.5 billion.
China has given other assistance though, promising 1 billion more coronavirus vaccines doses in November, on top of 200 million doses already delivered to African countries. Vaccines are a sore point between the EU and Africa because of the bloc’s refusal to waive intellectual property rights that would allow for cheaper production.
In his message to African leaders in November Xi also needled another point of tension: Europe’s colonial history in Africa.
“Over the past 65 years, China and Africa have forged unbreakable fraternity in our struggle against imperialism and colonialism,” Xi told the (FOCAC) meeting before hailing what he called the “big family of Belt and Road cooperation.”
Europe’s battle for influence in Africa is evident in the choice of visits by EU top brass ahead of the Brussels summit — which was delayed for 16 months because of the pandemic.
Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s powerful digital chief, was in Abuja, Nigeria on Monday to discuss the EU-Nigeria Digital Economy package. But though it was all smiles at the Valentine’s Day meeting with her counterpart, Digital Minister Isa Pantami, the country has been flirting with an internet model that is less than the free and open version favored by Europe. “€820 million until 2024 to invest in shared priorities … with democratic, human-centered governance,” she said in a thinly veiled remark on Twithmter while in Abuja. “So much to do together.”
The government imposed a national ban on Twitter in June last year after the social media platform deleted a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari threatening a violent crackdown on secessionists. It has only just been restored.
Meanwhile, members of the government, including the president’s chief of staff, flew to Beijing to learn more about the Great Firewall — China’s nationwide cyber-censorship and surveillance — just before the ban was imposed, according to a report by the Foundation for Investigative Journalism.
“China has [had a good] relationship with African dictators for the past 15 years with a certain amount of success,” said Philippe Le Corre, a China expert at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to China’s relationship with Africa in general. But while Global Gateway investments will help the EU push its agenda, “Money will not be enough — politics is a must,” he said. The EU must be politically savvy to avoid the appearance of being a “naive helper” while China provides repressive technology, he added.
Vestager’s Abuja leg is a stark reminder of what the EU is facing: that Beijing’s digital model is increasingly attractive to authoritarian regimes around the world, casting ever bigger uncertainty on the future of an open, accessible internet.
The other geopolitical battleground lies in deep water.
According to the EU’s Global Gateway plans, Brussels is eyeing a secure international submarine fiber cable connecting the EU with Africa along the Atlantic Ocean coast. “The new connection will foster the digital sovereignty of the two continents by diversifying existing links and ensuring the highest infrastructure and cyber security standards,” a draft document stated.
That’s a clear signal of the EU’s growing unease at China’s expansion of digital connectivity with parts of Africa. Leading Chinese telecoms provider Huawei Technologies is nearing completion of a cable project linking Asia with Eastern Africa (with a diversion also to France’s Marseille via Greece and Egypt). That project also has Orange as the French partner, underlining the complex business reality that goes beyond black-and-white distinctions along geopolitical lines.
One big open question is where the funding for Europe’s ambitions will come from. Details are limited and it seems that a sizeable portion of the €150 billion fund — to be handed out over the next seven years — won’t come from public sources.
That makes sense, said Theodore Murphey, Africa director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “If we want to make sure that we match China, we have to combine all EU initiatives, from both the EU institutions and EU countries to make sure that our footprint is greater than the sum of all parts.”
But it also introduces uncertainty, Francesca Ghiretti and Grzegorz Stec argue in a recent report published by MERICS, a Berlin-based think tank on China affairs. “In a rather European fashion, Brussels aims to incentivize private or public investors to match funds … Despite the incentives a co-founder like the EU can create for other investors, finding proper and reliable matching investors will be a challenge.”
And there’s also the issue of the conditions attached to EU funds. The bloc’s officials say they won’t forgo principles such as labor, environmental and anti-corruption standards. That could tip the balance for African capitals in favor of accepting Belt and Road financing from Chinese banks which has no strings attached.
A draft of the joint statement that the EU hopes to agree with African Union leaders on Friday hails “a common future, as closest partners and neighbours.” It’s unclear yet whether that invitation will compete with China’s growing foothold on the continent.