Africa and the Emerging Powers: An Evolving Analytical Inquiry?

Africa and the Emerging Powers: An Evolving Analytical Inquiry?

As the 2015 MDG benchmark approaches, there is much to reflect on especially with respect to Africa’s global revitalization in international relations. Undoubtedly, the rise of Southern actors (such as Brazil, China, India, the Gulf States, South Korea, and Turkey) as part of Africa’s political and economic landscape has set off a new wave of academic inquiries and research, particularly on the continent’s integration into the global system. Where once Africa was seen as the "Hopeless Continent", it is fast becoming a "Rising Continent". This is in response to the behavior of the emerging or, in Russia’s case, re-emerging actors and their pending effect on Africa’s development prospects, as well as public diplomacy and policy.

The emerging powers’ footprint is evident in a renewal of academic discourse and scholarship on African politics.  This extends even beyond the realm of theory and epistemology, and donor foundations and civil society groups on and beyond the continent are preoccupied with how to respond to the rise of emerging actors.

The current focus seems to be on the following overarching questions:

  • How should the behavior of these new actors be interpreted?
  • What impact will these emerging powers have on the continent’s existing engagements with traditional partners? and
  •  Whether the rise of the emerging actors is an opportunity for or threat to the future of Africa’s development?

In view of the aforementioned issues, this commentary sets out to highlight the issues that accompany the discourse on the role and behavior of the emerging actors in Africa. Intended to raise a set of policy and research questions, the commentary aims to expand the debate and scholarship on the emerging powers in Africa. The views expressed are by no means exhaustive and should be seen as part of the ongoing dialogue to understand the pulse points and impact of Africa’s engagement with emerging powers as future areas of inquiry.

Competing Interpretations

It must be recognized that Africa’s traditional relationships with the developed North are being challenged by the competing interests from the South, most notably China and India but now also by other countries such as Brazil, Turkey, the Gulf States, and economies in South East Asia, including South Korea and Malaysia.  How this shift should be interpreted has become the subject of intense speculation and has also given rise to a belief that the continent is in the middle of a "Second Scramble."1

But the debate on the "Second Scramble" is only part of the discourse. It is anchored by ideological dispositions that define the way scholarship is presented. Thus, the "Second Scramble" becomes a contested debate that identifies the emerging actors as the "new imperial" powers with a "colonialist project" that will perpetuate Africa’s underdevelopment.

Yet critics of the "Second Scramble" argument are equally caught up in their own parochial interpretation.  Whereas they dispute the notion of Africa’s engagement with the emerging actors as purely exploitative, extractive, and destructive, proponents of this other school of thought are also myopic. Their underlying assertion is that the engagement is benign and hence does not threaten Africa’s development. Instead, their basic assumption is that the emerging powers assist African states along the path of growth and prosperity through trade, investment, and development cooperation.

Not only do both schools speak past each other, but they also compartmentalize the debate by masking the inherent nuances in how these actors behave and interact with economies on the African continent.

Beyond the current debate…

In short, the above polarizing debate raises myriad questions, simple complicated and complex, about Africa’s engagement with emerging powers. Is the "Second Scramble" different from  the 19th century Scramble, which produced and expanded the imperialist and mercantilist project in Africa and was only concerned with exploiting and extracting the continent‘s resources for self-interest? Or are we witnessing a new form of South-South cooperation embedded within the construction of a common development identity?

In other words, is the engagement with the emerging powers being labeled and identified as a new and alternative discourse to the Washington consensus on development? If so, how is it different from Africa’s past experiences, and in whose interests? Or is it merely a reproduction of Africa’s engagement with traditional partners?  Moreover, whether for good or ill, how should the role of African agencies be conceptualized, especially that of governments and business sectors, when their engagement and relations with the leaderships of these emerging powers is an integral part of the new international architecture?

Therefore, to nurture a cogent understanding of the debate on the new actors, the following issues must also be given consideration:

  • Who is benefiting from the engagement with these new actors and how?
  • Is it enough to talk about "African countries" as if they comprised a homogeneous population with the same material interests?
  • How are the interests of Africa’s ruling classes being strengthened by their relationships with these actors from the South?
  • To what extent are the interests of the new actors being enhanced? And what are the consequences for the rest of us?
  • How do we define the "national interests" of these new actors? Is it in the same way as for African states? And do the national interests of African governments intersect with the national interests of African people? Is it enough to identify only the national interests of the actors as a central feature of the engagement?
  • What is the impact of the engagement of the new actors on class formation, capital accumulation, inequalities, and so forth?
  • What opportunities does engagement with the new actors from the South provide to social movements and other citizen organizations to advance their interests and those of the oppressed by playing one imperial power against another?
  • What will the consequences be of rapid capital accumulation by a class of African traders that has positioned itself to trade vigorously to and from these new markets in the South?
  • To what extent is the antipathy and xenophobia towards emerging powers and potentially vis-à-vis other actors a reflection of competition among the petty bourgeoisie?
  • How sustainable is the role of the emerging powers in Africa?

Evolving Analysis

Internal Class Contradictions

The urgency of the above questions definitely necessitates insights that will inform how Africa structures its engagement with the emerging Southern powers and with the consequences thereof. At the moment, these questions and other issues seem to be crowded out by the prospect, or possibly the illusion, that emerging powers from the South offer new impetus for resolving Africa’s development conundrum. This is implicit in the official statements and policy pronouncements articulated by African governments regarding the relocation of capitalism to central East Asia and the designation of an alternative framework of development by the South.

Yet the debate should also focus on whether Africa’s engagement with emerging powers represents something different or more of the same. The latter view continues to epitomize the scholarship, which is fundamentally concerned with whether the rhetoric about changing the global status quo is real or perceived. And, beyond that, how will the sovereign interests of the emerging powers advance Africa’s reintegration into the global economy?

With these issues in mind, it would seem that engagement with the emerging Southern powers is creating a new Africa-South axis. Is it replacing the African-North axis or becoming an extension of the latter? However, even among these actors there is competition and rivalry, which creates renewed regional and state divisions with significant implications for global governance architecture.

At the same time, the new engagement reinforces old tensions between state authorities and citizens in African societies. While we cannot deny that these emerging powers have reignited the debate about transformation of the African state, what type of development we should be seeking and how Africa should engage with these actors (i.e., what is Africa’s agenda and policy?) are as compelling issues as the recreation of new forms of capitalist class formation. This is because class structures are aligned to state capital and accumulation of wealth in African societies and because African governments are seen as active agents in this engagement.

Nevertheless, the mode of engagement also means that class conflicts within African states are not unique. Even in the societies of the emerging powers, class conflicts are gaining momentum. Deng Xiaoping claimed at the initiation of the economic modernization project, "that to get rich is glorious". However, the growth model and the trickledown effect have not transformed access to wealth or resources, or created conditions favorable to a better life for all. If anything, growth has widened inequality. And so the struggles for social justice in China, India, Brazil, and South Africa are common fights for human development and dignity. In other words, who benefits from growth has notable implications for class conflicts and tensions.

Peace and Security Dimension

The second aspect of the analysis relates to the peace and security dimension. An argument that underpins the question of stability is how the emerging powers are architects of instability in Africa through their support for either repressive regimes that flagrantly abuse human rights or "opaque" economic transactions with corrupt governments in order to strengthen access to extractive sectors.

The contradiction is that those who point fingers at emerging powers cannot claim the moral high ground. However, it is important for emerging powers to recognize that their relations with dubious African governments could lead to the same challenges experienced by traditional partners in the African market. This is partly due to the nature of the African state, which remains arrested by patterns of rentier statehood and politics. While analysts such as Christopher Clapham argue that the reason China fits so neatly into Africa is because it reinforces the old model of state patrimonialism, it is also true that as China and other emerging actors entrench themselves as major players in Africa, they will have to undergo the same learning processes as other outside powers and will probably respond in similar fashion to the same predicaments.2 One area where this is fairly evident is in countries where conflict exists between state elites and community groups over rightful control of natural resources, such as the Niger Delta or the newly independent Southern Sudan.

The point to emphasize is whether the emerging powers understand the fragility of the African state despite the prospect of an economic takeoff. The question is how emerging powers will respond if their economic interests are threatened? Will they shift from the principles of non-interference and respect for sovereignty? Or will they assume that their state-to-state engagements will provide some form of protection?

At the other end of the spectrum is the more pressing concern that emerging powers have shown little regard for upholding the norms of global governance. This is evident in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), where the veto has become a powerful tool to protect geostrategic interests of the five permanent members (the P5). Yet, recent UNSC activity regarding Libya and Syria has led to the perception that the Council is divided between the P3 (Britain, France and the US) and P2 (Russia and China). These divisions are further entrenched through the presence of the non-permanent members. For instance in 2011, there were differing viewpoints on the role of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries and whether they would employ club diplomacy and vote as a bloc. 3 While this did not materialize in the case of Resolution 1973 on Libya, the calculus of how the emerging powers will articulate their principles of peace and stability as part of the P2 and as potential permanent members in a reformed UNSC reflects the following considerations in respect of Africa:

  • How will residual Cold War dynamics influence a new set of complexities whereby the principles of non-interference and respect for sovereignty could be interpreted as a way for emerging powers to try to refashion how the UNSC operates?
  • Is it accurate to assume that the BRICS/IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa dialog forum) countries on the UNSC will act as a collective and will they put their group interests above their national interests and regional identities?
  • What is the discourse on peace building and development among the emerging powers regarding Africa?

This then leads to the final reflection: the role of peacekeeping in Africa. So far, the emerging powers have played a significant part in peacekeeping initiatives in Africa through the UN. Participation in UN-sponsored peace keeping programs legitimizes these actors’ contributions towards peace and stability in Africa.

Less controversial and probably more conservative in character, the emerging powers’ see their role as building an environment of peace in Africa through economic development. Unlike the Western view of a "liberal peace",[4] the emerging powers have aligned their involvement in peacekeeping with their overall development cooperation strategy in which poverty reduction, socioeconomic governance, and boosting infrastructure that improves market access are identified as key contributors to a stable Africa.4

But peacekeeping does not signify a real thrust towards domestic interference. The rhetoric remains non-interference and there is less of a leadership role in peacebuilding. A case in point is China’s role in the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. While Beijing was perceived as a significant actor that could influence Khartoum and deliver a more pragmatic outcome, the Chinese authorities preferred a model of inclusive dialogue and negotiations among the parties.

Of course, the rejoinder to this model of peacebuilding is, when interests are compromised, to what extent will emerging powers’ use their powers of persuasion and leverage for an outcome that satisfies their political and economic security needs as rising powers.

Conclusion

In going forward, we must return to how the relationship with the new actors from the South should be conceptualized. The starting point is to recognize the set of policy considerations and research questions that need to be interrogated in order to understand and disaggregate the long-term implications of the engagement for Africa.

A useful point of departure would be to ask how the emerging powers seek to create a just, stable, and equitable world, as they seem to imply on intergovernmental platforms that they wish to do. What is the master plan and where does Africa fit?

But more importantly, the role of African agency in this engagement should not be ignored. Instead, careful consideration should be given to how African agency deepens the footprint of the emerging actors across the continent.

  1. Southall, R. and H. Melber (eds) (2009) A New Scramble for Africa? Imperialism, Investment and Development, South Africa: University of KwaZulu Natal Press.
  2. Clapham, C., "Fitting China In", Brenthurst Discussion Papers 8, Johannesburg: Brenthurst Foundation, 2006: 3.
  3. For more on this see Naidu, S.  (2011), "The Emerging Powers Dimension of South Africa’s Second Term on the UNSC", in South Africa in the UN Security Council 2011-2012: Promoting the African Agenda in a Sea of Multiple Identities and Alliances, Research report on South Africa’s second term on the UNSC (2011-12). Available at http://www.safpi.org/funded_projects/deliberating-south-africas-role-united-nations-security-council-unsc.
  4. See Kuo, S.  "Not Looking to Lead: Beijing’s View of the Crisis between the Two Sudans", in Tom Wheeler (ed.) (2012): China and the Two Sudans, SAFERWORLD Briefing, August. Available at: http://www.saferworld.org.uk/downloads/pubdocs/China-South%20Sudan%20briefing%20English.pdf.
About the Author

Sanusha Naidu is the senior researcher with the South African Foreign Policy Initiative (SAFPI) program at the Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSF-SA) in Cape Town, South Africa.

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