President Xi Jinping is hosting the China-Africa Summit in Beijing this week with at least 50 heads of state attending.
The global spotlight will, therefore, be shining brightly on Africa in the coming days. Last week, leaders from top states in the continent met, separately, United States President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, thereby underlining their growing importance — especially on the economic front.
Politically, the continent has also assumed some additional influence. Yet, it is economically that the continent is especially coming of age, boasting a growing number of key emerging markets as highlighted in the South Africa-hosted Brics summit in July.
The growing economic weight of the continent is illustrated by the fact that it houses six of the world’s top 12 fastest-growing countries: Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Tanzania and Rwanda. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund also asserts that in the five years to 2023, Africa’s overall growth prospects will be among the best in the world.
Small wonder therefore that nascent superpower China is showing increasing interest in the continent, aiming to better connect its Belt and Road Initiative increasingly with development in Africa. Beijing’s top leadership (the president, premier and foreign minister) have reportedly made a total of around 80 visits to more than 40 different African countries over the past 10 years. And following Xi’s visit in July to Senegal, Rwanda, Mauritius and South Africa, he will host this week’s China-Africa Summit.
While Trump has — rightly — been criticised for not having a coherent or clear Africa policy, his administration may now be waking up to smell the coffee of China’s growing presence in Africa. This indeed was one of the topics at the White House last week when Trump met Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose nation’s external debt is largely (around 70 per cent) owed to Beijing, and where many large infrastructure projects are being built by Chinese firms.
Kenya is a key US partner in the region, including in the campaign against terrorism, and the White House talks explored ways to boost bilateral trade via the US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act legislation. While the session was only the second one-on-one meeting that the US president has held with a sub-Saharan African leader since he took office, there does appear modest momentum in Washington in the direction of developing an ambitious Africa strategy. This includes the appointment in June of Tibor Nagy as the State Department’s top diplomat in the continent, and recent indications that the region could become part of the new US “Indo-Pacific strategy”, despite the fact that it is not usually seen as part of that already massive geography from the US Pacific coast westwards.
Yet, it is not just China and the US that are showing greater interest in the continent. Many other key nations, such as India, the Gulf states, as well as Turkey and top European Union (EU) countries such as France, Germany and Britain are also showering Africa with greater interest, giving countries there more diplomatic options than just Beijing and Washington moving forward. Under French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, Paris is seeking to double down ties with its former colonies while embedding relations with the continent’s biggest economies, including South Africa and Nigeria.
Last week, however, it was not just Macron, but Merkel and May who also visited the continent. The German chancellor met on Thursday and Friday Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (who is the only other sub-Saharan leader that Trump has seen at the White House) to try to embed Berlin’s ties with the nation that is sometimes called the ‘giant of Africa’.
While Merkel has made numerous trips to the continent before, May — belatedly — made her first prime ministerial visit, seeing the heads of three major Commonwealth countries: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Buhari and also Kenyatta in what she called “a unique opportunity at a unique moment”. For the United Kingdom, the continent has assumed new importance with Brexit as London seeks to consolidate ties with key non-EU nations as it leaves the Brussels-based club.
Given the long-standing historical ties that the UK has with Africa, May sought to rediscover the UK’s heritage “as a great global trading nation” with a “prosperous, growing ... Africa”. However, it is not solely through the lens of economics that she views the relationship. She has also stressed — as did Trump last week — the need for greater security ties with the West “to tackle instability across the region”. In Nigeria on Wednesday, for instance, the threat of Boko Haram was discussed, and in Kenya (where May made the first trip by a UK prime minister since 1988) she saw first-hand last Thursday the role that UK troops were playing there as part of an alliance of countries fighting Al Shabab militants in Somalia.
This underlines that while the upsurge of attention to Africa by western powers and China largely reflects economic calculations, some broader political considerations are also at play. From Brexit to the great-power game underway between Washington and Beijing in the continent, interest in the region is only likely to grow in coming years, especially if it continues to fulfil its economic potential.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.