AFRICAN VIEWS OF ASIA
By Pr. Saviour Ukobong
Having accepted an offer from Rev. David Parry to write this note for THA Thoughts, what intrigued me were the rich histories embedded in these themes. All quite apart from the “miracles” of the ancient tigers and their corpses, which talk about the industrial revolution (possibly starting in Japan) and how it spread out to other Asian states – remains telling. How far did these advances stretch? Furthermore, in what ways did they move from a dependent to an independent economy in times long past and what does this show us about today?
To begin, let’s look at the geographical positioning of these great continents. The demarcation between Asia and Africa is the isthmus of Suez and the Red Sea. The border with Europe starts along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean; even though Turkey in the Near East extends partly into the Aegean Islands and includes Istanbul on the European side of the Bosphorus. Moreover, the north marks a boundary between the continents of Asia and Europe – commonly regarded as running through the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, the Caspian Sea, the Ural River (to its source), and along a border generally following the eastern side of the Ural Mountains to the Kara Sea, Russia. The Arctic Ocean is situated near the northern border. Also, the Bering Straits divide Asia from North America, while to the southeast of Asia the Malay Peninsula (the limit of mainland Asia) and Indonesia (“Isles of India”, the former East Indies), is still a vast nation among thousands of islands on the Sunda Shelf: large, as well as small, inhabited and uninhabited. Of course, Australia nearby is a different continent. The Pacific islands northeast of Australia – more or less remotely removed from Japan and Korea – are Oceania rather than Asia. From Indonesia the border runs along the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea: most of the islands in the Indian Ocean being “Asian.”
For decades, therefore, other major regional economies, notably Japan and India, have had strong and growing commercial (not to mention diplomatic) ties with African nations. In recent years, both have significantly ramped-up their respective engagement strategies. Specifically, China has undoubtedly dominated Africa’s relationship with Asia – for good or ill – although it is far from the only game in town.
Indeed, large-scale infrastructure and resource extraction projects have become synonymous with China’s presence on the continent; helping to fuel growth (boom?) across Africa in recent years. It is a relationship that is also evolving to encompass everything from entrepreneurship to development finance and aid. China has also just opened its first ever overseas military base on the continent (in Djibouti), and through its landmark “One Belt, One Road” initiative, looks set to reshape the global trading landscape.
In itself, this move reflects the strategic and ambitious nature of Asia’s approach to Africa, which arguably contrasts with a more “risk-conscious” perception by the West, which seems preoccupied with security concerns and controlling immigration due to failing economic reserves. So, any attempt to answer the question “Is India competing with China over Africa and will they, in turn, become investors attempting to outmanoeuvre the West?” in on everyone’ immediate horizon. In which case, what they do in these regions and how indigenous peoples view them is revealed by a quote from Joseph Boyle when he uses Central Asia as a benchmark;
Central Asia is a small export market by Asian standards. Africa is more or less equally accessible to anywhere else by sea. Even if Africa is the poorest continent, coastal countries are in a position to make everyone else compete for Africa’s business. This is the opposite of Central Asia that is landlocked by conflict zones.
Thus, China’s economic engagements have greatly contributed to the favorable perceptions of Central Asia in these regions via channels such as trade, investment, and infrastructure-financing. However, Central Asia – even from the Chinses side, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center, is (obviously) not the principle protagonist. Rather, China, in itself, dominates the scene. Hence, nowhere is public opinion more positive about China than in Africa. An unsurprising result, given that China’s engagement with Africa comes at a time when the continent is developing and pursuing its agenda for economic transformation – and is in need of strong economic partnership.
Stated so, after a long delay in the post-independence era, African countries were only able to restart growing their economies in the 1990s, albeit at a robust pace. Certainly, some African countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Rwanda have even joined the club of “growth miracle”, countries that have experienced seven percent, or more, gross domestic product enlargement for twenty five years – or longer. But to reach Asian levels of income, African states need to transform their economies to achieve a more sustainable and inclusive growth. This agenda starts with addressing Africa’s large infrastructure gap.
Overall, this context for Africa’s growth is important for understanding why perceptions of Asia are so positive. Indeed, China’s economic engagement with the continent, through bilateral trade and foreign investment, has increased dramatically in recent years. Some countries like Angola (which exports half of its oil to China), relying heavily on its new economic partner for general trade. Equally, Chinese investments go to a relatively broad range of sectors (not just natural resources) and to a broad range of countries (from fragile to middle income countries). Thus, China is also a major financer of African infrastructure and (worryingly) the only player in some sectors such as railroads.
China’s rising economic engagement with Africa has, however, not been without criticisms. For instance, concerns about violations in labour rights, investments with relatively low local content, and insufficient transparency in loans to African countries (especially when they are in exchange for natural resources) have been relayed loudly by the Global Press.
Obviously, this said, these views on Chinese policy also reflect changes in perceptions of China in the Western mind. Fueling, some would say, crude stereotypes of a “Yellow Peril” aiming to dominate Western culture in the early 21th century. Each producing further fears – in Africa itself – that China will follow in the West’s imperialistic footsteps. In other words, the legacy of imperialism underpins today’s perceptions of China’s foreign policy as well as Chinese identity itself.
Therefore, Chinese engagements in Africa are sadly starting to look similar to our previous political experiences. All meaning, a revealing light has now been shed on the initial form of Chinese involvement in Africa – originating through ideological and military assistance to the various anti-colonial movements of the 1950s – in their struggles against the once dominant European empires that had themselves been ravaged by the Second World War. Yet, the ancient tigers are still at the back of everyone’s mind. Was there similar investment once before … even though thousands of years ago? Modern Beijing, for its part, has formed strong ties with a number of African nations reminiscent of its previous oppressors. In which case, only time will tell, while we must hope Asia will not repeat the mistakes of others when dealings with Africa.