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AFRICA is accumulating massive new investments in infrastructure funded and built by Beijing in order to increase its commercial, financial, and political influence by securing African resources and markets. China’s growing influence in Africa alarms Washington and explains why Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on his August tour of South Africa, Congo and Rwanda, stated that Washington sees Africa as an equal partner that will not be dictated to.
Beijing’s enormous influence in Africa explains why many African countries do not want to condemn Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine. Washington understands that Africa will function as a trade buffer zone to mitigate Western sanctions on Russia, with limits set by Beijing.
Beijing’s imperial strategies are as toxic to African economies and institutions as they are attractive to local political and economic elites. Rather than Beijing, the opportunity for African market development lies in Africa itself, with its African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreed in 2018 and launched in 2021 would be the world’s largest regional free trade bloc.
But the 42nd Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in August in Kinshasa focused on Africa’s geopolitical positioning on the ongoing tensions between the US and Russia. There is some consensus that taking sides in the conflict would not benefit Africa. But in a continent with meager domestic savings, lacerating underdevelopment, exploding inequality, and notoriously corrupt political and economic elites, the truth is that outside of the rhetorical acceptance of the AfCFTA, there is not the slightest political commitment in most African countries to make continental free trade a reality.
Actually making free trade work in Africa would be Africa’s most powerful tool for its own development and for improving its position in economic and political relations with global partners. But the bilateral approach that dominates relations between African countries and world powers hinders free trade in Africa. African elites accept bilateral trade agreements from a position of weakness and on terms dictated by more powerful partners because those partners are willing to buy them off. And in that game Beijing is today the highest bidder.
A common African market would allow better terms to be negotiated with major trading partners such as the US and China. The potential for growth in intra-African trade is enormous because the continent’s current trade regime is an absurd jumble of protectionist barriers between naturally complementary economies.
The SADC summit announced a commitment to open local markets and unlock value in agriculture and agro-processing, but Botswana and Namibia have already announced they would block certain agricultural imports.
African elites may gain a lot from being courted by superpowers, but that game will not improve trade or regional economic integration. Africa needs to unify its own market to develop, and truly unifying its market requires reducing corruption and strengthening institutions, which would jeopardize the interests of local elites who see integration as nothing more than a danger to their business.
Washington should support an African common market because Beijing is ahead in the current game. Shifting the chessboard towards a common market in Africa would be politically and economically advantageous for Washington. But it will not be through a neo-imperialist imposition of the woke ideology that Washington will be able to change Beijing’s game in Africa. And it is to that mistake that the Biden administration will inevitably tie the idea of advancing democracy and human rights in Africa.
For the protection of their vested interests, local elites will insist on bilateralism in trade relations in most African countries. And Beijing is increasingly gaining influence in an Africa separated by protectionist barriers and mutual distrust. A common African market would disrupt Beijing’s imperial project and open up new economic and political opportunities for Washington in a stronger and more prosperous Africa.
Guillermo Rodríguez is a professor of Political Economy in the extension area of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Universidad Monteávila, in Caracas. A researcher at the Juan de Mariana Center and author of several books // Guillermo es profesor de Economía Política en el área de extensión de la Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas de la Universidad Monteávila, en Caracas, investigador en el Centro Juan de Mariana y autor de varios libros